A newly released viral video shows two snow leopard mothers and their cubs in a den in Mongolia, the first footage ever captured of the endangered animals in their natural habitat.
The video shows the leopards in their den located in the rocky and largely inaccessible region of the country. Researchers say capturing footage of the animals should allow for a greater understanding of how snow leopards reproduce and raise their young.
“We have spent years trying to determine when and where snow leopards give birth, the size of their litters, and the chances a cub has of surviving into adulthood,” said Tom McCarthy, executive director of the snow leopard program at Panthera, a wild cat conservation organization.
The video is especially impressive considering the secretive and elusive nature of the creatures. Researchers have been trying for decades to study the snow leopard, only to find themselves thwarted due to tough terrain. Much of what is currently know about snow leopards and their young comes from examining the creatures living in zoos, where litters typically consist of one to three cubs.
The dens were discovered in Mongolia’s Tost Mountains, where locals refer to the creatures as “Asia’s Mountain Ghost.” The team of scientists from Panthera and the Snow Leopard Trust began their search back in 2008. In May, two female leopards restricted their movements in a smaller area which indicated that they were preparing to give birth. Scientists then on June 21 tracked them through their collars in two different dens which are located less than four miles apart.
It took a month of intensive searching, but the team eventually located two dens. The team described the process of placing the camera in the den and obtaining the footage. The research team, which included a veterinarian, entered the two dens while the mothers were away hunting. A short video of the female and her cub who were bedded down in a partially man-made den was recorded from a safe distance by Orjan Johansson, Panthera’s Snow Leopard Field Scientist and Ph.D. student, using a camera fixed to an extended pole. In addition, two of the leopard cubs were fitted tiny microchip ID tags (about the size of a grain of rice) that were placed under their skin for future identification.
The team said knowledge gained from the study could allow humans to better tailor conservation efforts to protect the big vats. As wild snow leopard cubs are subject to natural predators, disease, and also human threats such as poaching or capture for the illegal wildlife market, the percentage of cubs which survive to adulthood has until now only been speculated. Scientists say that additional follow up video could provide further information regarding how leopards hunt, which may allow for more effective anti-poaching efforts.
“Knowledge about the first days and weeks of life is vital to our understanding of how big cat populations work, and how likely it is for a newborn to reach adulthood and contribute to a healthy population. A valid conservation program requires such information, which this new development in snow leopard research provides,” Howard Quigley, Panthera’s executive director of jaguar and cougar programs, said in the statement.
The utmost care was taken in handling the animals to ensure they were not endangered, said researchers.
The researchers monitored the mothers’ locations to ensure that they returned to their dens and their cubs, which they successfully did without apparently sensing the intrusion. Scientists noted that additional findings may be released later this year.
Only around 4,500 to 7.500 snow leopards are thought to remain in the wild. In recent years, pictures of snow leopards from camera traps have also been taken in other parts of the region.