First Video to Capture Snow Leopard Cubs in Their Den

By Chelsea Whyte on July 13, 2012 10:51 PM EDT

snow leopard
These rare cats are hard to track, but scientists have caught a mother and her cubs on video. (Photo: Creative Commons: Trisha Shear)

Snow leopards are sly creatures. Their elusive nature combined with their treacherous mountain habitats have made it difficult for conservationists to locate their dens. Now, a new video recorded by scientists from Pantheram, a wild cat conservation organization, has caught these wily cats and their cubs on tape.

"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 Executive Director of Panthera's Snow Leopard Program Tom McCarthy. "This is one of those exceptional moments in conservation where after years of effort, we get a rare glimpse into the life of an animal that needs our help in surviving in today's world. These data will help ensure a future for these incredible animals."

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The search began back in 2008, when a team of scientists affixed GPS collars to several snow leopards encountered in Mongolia's Gobi Desert, reports Smithsonian Magazine. In May, two females from the study began restricting their movements to a smaller area, indicating they were preparing to give birth. They were tracked through their collars to a pair of dens located less than four miles apart on June 21st.

Using a camera fixed to an extended pole, field scientist Orian Johansson recorded a female and her cub in a partially man-made den from a safe distance.

Mama leopard doesn't look too happy about the video intruder, but scientists were careful not to disturb the family. While the mothers were away hunting, the team, which included a veterinarian, entered two dens and weighed, measured and photographed the cubs. The dens were discovered in Mongolia's Tost Mountains where locals refer to the cats as "Asia's Mountain Ghost". The team monitored the dens in the following days to confirm that the mothers returned to their cubs.

"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," said Howard Quigley, Panthera's Executive Director of both Jaguar and Cougar Programs.

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 animal's range, including Bhutan, Siberia, Kashmir and Afghanistan, according to The Christian Science Monitor

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