Snow Leopard Trust researchers have been able to follow and observe a young female snow leopard named Anu over the course of four years as she grew up, dispersed from her mother and later had cubs herself twice in her mountain habitat in Mongolia’s South Gobi. Recent camera-trap photos show Anu followed by three small cubs. Her tale is a powerful sign of hope for the endangered cat species.
By Matthias Fiechter, Snow Leopard Trust
In the fall of 2014, our team retrieved a research camera they had set up near a watering hole in Mongolia’s Tost Mountains. Days later, we got an excited email from the field: “Amazing pics. Mother with 3 cubs!”
Half a year and hours of painstaking detective work went by until we realized we knew the mom of these three cuties. It was Anu, a cat we had previously tracked for several years!
While most of these elusive cats stay hidden forever, Anu has become something a public ambassador for her species since she was first thrust into the spotlight.
Part of A Groundbreaking Study
In 2008, researchers from the Snow Leopard Trust had set up camp in the Tost Mountains, on the edge of the Gobi desert in Mongolia – just a few miles from where Anu was born – for what was to become the world’s first long-term study of the endangered snow leopard’s ecology and behavior.
Using technology such as motion-sensor cameras and GPS tracking collars, the scientists sought to lift the veil on some of the snow leopard’s secrets: how much space do these cats need? How much prey do they consume? How do they interact? Where do they migrate to, and which patterns do they follow?
The answers to some of these questions have helped shape effective conservation measures over the last years. The study showed that more than a dozen cats lived in this area – information that has been critical in partially protecting Tost from the threat of mining until now.
Data from the study proved that snow leopards migrate between various mountain chains, crossing steppe and desert if necessary – promoting efforts to protect these important corridors along with the mountains they link.
In 2010, when Anu was around one year old, she was photographed for the first time by one of the Snow Leopard Trust’s research cameras. At the time, she was hiding behind her mother, a cat the scientists had named Inquisitive for her curious nature.
Given her age, the researchers estimated that Anu would soon disperse from her mom and set out on her own to find a suitable home range – and indeed, in the spring of 2011, when she made her next appearance in front of a camera, Anu was traveling alone and had developed into a fully-grown young cat.
A couple of weeks later, our research team would achieve a breakthrough: an alarm went off at basecamp, indicating that a snow leopard had been caught by a hidden snare, giving the scientists the opportunity to equip the cat with a GPS tracking collar. The cat in the snare was Anu.
The researchers had set out to collar a young female, hoping she’d have cubs while they were tracking her. Anu didn’t appear to be pregnant though – but with the collars lasting for about 18 months, they were hopeful for 2012.
As her collar steadily sent location data to a satellite, our team tracked Anu’s movements for about a year. In the spring of 2012, they noticed a change in her ranging patterns. She restrained her movements more and more, using only a very small portion of her home range. Eventually, she stopped moving altogether. For the researchers, this was exactly the sign they had been hoping for. They believed Anu was about to give birth.
They tracked her signals to a remote cave, not far from the study’s base camp. From behind a wall of rocks that must have been built years earlier by local herders, they heard faint sounds. They attached a camera to stick – a bit of a makeshift set-up, as this was before the era of the ubiquitous selfie-stick – and carefully lifted it over the wall to film the inside of the cave.
It may only be a few seconds of shaky footage, but the film the team took that day was historical: the first ever video of a wild snow leopard cub in its den, with its mother, Anu.
A few days later, Anu ventured out of the den to hunt for food. The team used this opportunity to examine her cub, carefully inspecting, weighing and photographing the little kitten. They quickly left the den site and waited at a safe distance for Anu to come home.
After a few hours, Anu returned with dinner and settled back into the den with her offspring.
The photos and videos taken that day had a major impact in the scientific community and were celebrated by snow leopard lovers around the world. Anu, however, didn’t seem to be impressed by her sudden fame. Instead, she began venturing out of the den with her cub, teaching the little one to hunt and survive in the rugged mountains of their home range.
Anu’s GPS collar dropped off as scheduled soon after, and the team lost sight of her and her cub for a while – our research cameras kept track of them though.
In the fall of 2012, they appeared in a photo – the cub still relatively small. Our team was anxious to see how the two cats would fare through the hard Mongolian winter.
A few months later, in early 2013, the got their answer, as Anu and her cub again passed in front of a camera. By then, the tiny ball of fur our team had found in its den had grown into a handsome young adult.
After this sighting, we lost track of mother and cub for a couple of months. During this time, the cub must have dispersed to find its own home range.
But what about Anu?
Detective Work Leads to Discovery
When a camera stationed near a watering hole in 2014 took pictures of a female snow leopard with three cubs, we were elated. Footage of wild cubs is still exceedingly rare, and is always a powerful sign of hope.
A dedicated volunteer, Simone Schreiber, put together a short video of the playful cubs, and thousands of supporters enjoyed seeing them. Behind the scenes, however, we were trying to find out how this cat was – for scientific reasons and to satisfy our own curiosity.
In the photos from the watering hole, it’s hard to make out much of the mother’s fur pattern, which is how individual cats are usually identified. So, as a direct ID was impossible, our researchers looked for other photos of the quartet, where they may be more easily identifiable.
Finally, Dr. Koustubh Sharma, the Snow Leopard Trust’s Senior Regional Ecologist, found the key pic: a crystal-clear image of the mother, trailing her three cubs, taken near the same watering hole, but by a different camera. He was able to confirm that it was the same cat as in the other photos. More importantly, he now had a good picture of her spots to compare with our database of snow leopard photos.
What sounds like a quick job for a computer is actually quite complicated. Slight differences in posture, angle or lighting can distort fur patterns significantly. Sometimes, what looks like two different cats may indeed be one and the same animal, while similarities in patterns between two cats can lead to false IDs.
“It took some time, and I hit quite a few dead ends, but I was finally able to confirm that the mother with three cubs is indeed Anu”, Koustubh Sharma says.
“Seeing Anu again, with a new litter of cubs, gives me hope. It shows that this sliver of snow leopard habitat we’re working to protect in Mongolia is a suitable home for this endangered cat, and could support a healthy population.”
When can we expect to see Anu and her small family again? “If we’re lucky, they’ll have passed some of our cameras this spring. We’ll collect those photos soon, so stay tuned”, Koustubh says.