Field guide: Searching for snow leopards
If you’re looking for a snow leopard, Dr. Rinjan Shrestha can tell you where to go. The question is: are you tough enough to get there? Rinjan is WWF’s Eastern Himalayas Program Conservation Scientist, focused on snow leopard and tiger recovery projects. Based in Toronto, he travels to visit his projects twice a year. It is his favourite part of the job, but certainly not the easiest.
Rinjan and his team have been studying the elusive snow leopard for 10 years. Working closely with local people, who have a deep understanding of the land and its wildlife, the team conducts studies to understand how many snow leopards live in the Himalayas and how they use the land.
“It is a lengthy process,” explains Rinjan. “We first survey the land for signs of leopards – foot-prints, scat, and other territorial markings. Then we set up motion-triggered cameras to get photos that give us a sense of how many cats are in each study site. Finally, in some circumstances, we fit animals we trap – which is extremely challenging – with radio collars to see where they go throughout the year.”
This spring, Rinjan traveled to Thimpu, Bhutan – the starting point of his expedition into the Himalayas to set up cameras. From the very beginning, luck was not on their side. They were travelling into the wilderness, climbing up to 5,000 m, carrying a months’ worth of field gear and food. With 24 porters in tow, the team bush whacked– building bridges made of tree branches and vines, climbing up vertical cliffs using bamboo shoots and balancing along narrow crevices with straight drop-offs.
“We stopped at a local village, where we asked a monk to perform rituals to please the rain Gods,” recalls Rinjan. “Still, it rained almost the whole time. But nature always has wonderful surprises! We found natural hot springs for daily baths – a luxury I’ve never had in the field.”
The trip that was estimated to take three days, took seven. When they set up camp for 15 days, they were already running low on food and almost out of salt, an important commodity when trekking at high altitudes.
“The porters often bicker about who is carrying more,” says Rinjan. “We try to make it even among the whole team, but one of our porters threw seven bags of salt over a cliff. That was day 9 of 23.”
In the end, the team successfully set up cameras and will get incredibly valuable data for their efforts. “Our work is very important and rewarding,” says Rinjan. “It informs management plans across borders and is key in protecting snow leopards and their habitat. It is tough, but I love it.”