Sunday, December 17, 2006

BBC's Snow Leopard Diary: Entry #2

A research project is under way to learn more about the elusive snow leopard.

A team has travelled to the Chitral Gol National Park in the Pakistan-Afghanistan borders to attach GPS collars to five of the cats, to understand more about the animals' movements.

With one snow leopard successfully tagged, the team is hopeful its mission will be a success, and the team members will be charting their progress for the BBC News website.

The second entry is by Ashley Spearing, who will be taking over from project leader Tom McCarthy for the Christmas period.


Capturing a further four snow leopards was never going to be easy, and the last 14 days both in and out of the field are testimony to this.

I have been travelling from the UK to Chitral to take over from project leader Tom McCarthy for the next phase of the mission.

As I journeyed into the Chitral district, over the Lowary Pass, the weather turned with a cruel menace.

Fatal avalanches bombarded all in front of us, and my WWF colleague and I were spared life by a mere 10m.

Others were not so fortunate. We are eternally grateful to the Pashtun men who rescued us that night.

Escape act

Meanwhile, in Chitral Gol, a capture team experienced the highs and lows of seeing a wily large adult male leopard escaping a locked snare at the last moment. Uncovering the movements of a large male cat is something we all desperately crave.

To make matters worse, the heavy snows then arrived, caching both snares and trails beneath a blanket of snow two feet deep and effectively immobilising the mission.

The captors captured by the snow leopard's realm.

However, while this was happening I was still struggling to reach the team.

With Lowary Pass no longer a sane course, and the vehicular route via Afghanistan certainly not my preferred option, after days of impatience I finally arrived in Chitral Gol via air.

My arrival coincided with snow melt and the departure of my mentor and friend Tom McCarthy.

Rogue wolf

With time of the essence, we enlisted the help of live bait to lure the cats in. Sure enough, four days in, our routine 530am radio signal snare check generated hysteria to rival any alarm clock.

To our surprise and disappointment however, at the end of the snare was a large female wolf, weighing about 45kg.

Funnily enough, the local watchers were adamant that the Purdum Mali (which means snow leopard home) trail was inhabited only by cats. As you can imagine, much banter soon ensued.

With regards to the live bait, the cats are literally not biting, even upon the Purdum Mali ridge where we captured the first cat, Bayed-e-Kohsaar.

Through the centuries the Chitral Gol was to all intents and purposes a hunting reserve.

Consequently it is no surprise that wily cats may avoid the temptation of a tethered meal, a common trick in the armoury of a generation of hunters in the Chitral Gol.

So, still four cats to go - but what of our first cat?

To date, we have located her roaming far and wide.

And most recently, a BBC film crew, 20km away, filmed a cat hunting with the unmistakable matching green ear tags that Bayed-el-Kohsaar was fitted!

Ashley Spearing

* The study is a joint collaboration between the Snow Leopard Trust, the Northwest Frontier Province Wildlife Department and WWF-Pakistan. 6159767.stm

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