Tuesday, 20 May 2008

DNA profiling the snow leopard

How many snow leopards are there in Bhutan? Where do they stay? Are they safe? These are some of the many unanswered questions about Bhutan’s elusive big cats about which little is known.

To answer precisely these questions, animal biologist, Tsewang, has come up with a plan to track these animals by genetic fingerprinting. “We basically collect ‘scat’ or faeces of these leopards and analyze their DNA to get information on them,” he said.

This new technique, used along with a modern graph calculation system, will provide a more scientific estimate of the number, spread and abundance of snow leopards in Bhutan.

Tsewang has already gone scat hunting and come up with some interesting findings. “In Bartshong-Lingshi under Jigme Dorji National Park we were told by the park ranger, Namgay Wangchuk, that stray dogs gone wild were found to be encroaching in the habitat of the snow leopard”. According to villagers, these dogs have also been known to corner leopards and steal their kill with ease. The troublesome dogs, in this instance, a pack of 13, roam freely in the forests there.

According to park officials, these dogs have also been found killing blue sheep and yak calves. What is worrying some officials is that these dogs are thought to be carrying a parasite called ‘gid,’ whose occurrence has also gone up in these dogs.

According to Tsewang, he also came to learn that the best places for leopard scat and signs was off the beaten track and deeper into the forest. These leopards prefer places like steep cliffs at an elevation, bases of cliffs, narrow bases and ridges. His first excursion also got him further proof that snow leopards could also come down to lower altitudes instead of only sticking to higher reaches.

“They sometimes even come as low as the river when travelling from one place to another,” said Tshewang. He also came across the scat of other carnivorous animals like wild dogs (different from strays), fox and marneet, showing a more diverse eco- system.

Another interesting find was the great tolerance of the yak herding inhabitants to the hunting practices of the snow leopard. “Elsewhere, even for small kills, villagers are up in arms but here the snow leopard’s kills of yak calves are tolerated with great understanding,” said Tsewang. “This basically means that our theory of human-wildlife conflict needs to re-examined in this situation, though it doesn’t mean we should ignore these tolerant people,” he added.

This research will continue over a year and take the biologist over a vast terrain from the Jigme Dorji national park in the west to the Bumdeling sanctuary in the east.

The data, when compiled, will also show whether snow leopards are using the biological corridors. “We’ll determine this by seeing if the gene pools are mixing in the different parks of Bhutan,” said Tsewang. He also hopes to use the data from his study to help in any conservation programme and that credit must go to the park and forest staff of JDNP for their tough and dedicated work in the field.

On the importance of snow leopards, Tsewang said, “If the snow leopards are fine, then so are the blue sheep and other fauna they fees on, which in turn means the alpine forests and flora are also fine and finally it means that the environment itself is well preserved.”

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