Mountain Ghost: The Science of Snow Leopards

Today, International Snow Leopard Day 2021, join conservationist Dr Jonny Hanson for an interactive and engaging exploration of the science of snow leopards. From natural selection and camera trapping to social surveys and ecosystem services, learn about the natural history of and threats to this elusive big cat, its coexistence with local communities, and the significance of its mountain home for the world and all its inhabitants. Drawing on Jonny’s experience of working with snow leopards in captivity, his research on snow leopard conservation in the field, and his ongoing involvement in snow leopard conservation, this talk blends science and adventure, humour and wonder, in this inspiring profile of the Mountain Ghost.

Mountains of the mind

It’s not the imposing spires of the Himalayas that are the world’s most challenging peaks; it’s the mountains of the mind. These mental massifs also dictate the success or failure of snow leopard conservation, and of nature conservation in general. Some parting thoughts from the series in Snow Leopard Fieldwork Diaries 19.

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Two months on from finishing fieldwork, the snow leopard conservation journey continues.

The Himalayas may be thousands of miles from where I sit writing this, but their epic proportions feel much closer to home. That’s because the mountains that I’ve been working amongst over the last two months are not physical entities but mountains of data. With over 700 household questionnaires and 70 interviews collected there’s a lot of information to be sifted through and checked. I’ve just spent three weeks, for example, going through around 15,000 responses to open questions – were the respondent can say whatever they want rather than picking predetermined answers – and putting them in relevant categories. Only now am I ready to start analysing this data with statistics.

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The voices of those who matter II

Conservation = nature + human nature. But it’s the human nature bit that’s the tricky part, especially where large carnivores are concerned. Snow Leopard Fieldwork Diaries explores the nuances of these relationships in Nepal’s Annapurna Conservation Area.

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How people in Annapurna Conservation Area think about and feel towards the snow leopard.

In the ‘voices of those who matter‘ we looked at how people in Sagarmatha National Park (SNP) felt about the snow leopard.  In this blog we do the same with the 500-plus people we’ve talked to in our other study site: Annapurna Conservation Area (ACA)  After all, these are the people who live alongside the snow leopard day-in, day-out.  Their views of of the species are often shaped by practical experiences of losing livestock or via their religion, rather than through the comfortable lens of zoological collections or wildlife documentaries.  But like people everywhere, their opinions are diverse, multifaceted and important.

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Seven days in Little Tibet

One of the world’s most remote and extraordinary places, Nepal’s NarPhu valley has everything: stunning scenery, challenging trekking, Tibetan Buddhist culture, Cold War history. And did we mention the snow leopards? A week of wonder in Snow Leopard Fieldwork Diaries 17.

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A blow-by-blow account of a week spent in the restricted NarPhu valley searching for snow leopards and their calling cards.

Day 1

Start: Koto 2600m

Finish: Mehta 3560m

Net altitude gain: 960m

Journey time: 8 hours 45 minutes

Armed to the teeth with permits, we were let into the valley by the police without any problems. Immediately a different world: no tourists, no road, hardly any litter. The river gorge we followed was incredible – 1,000m/3,300ft rock walls towering over us on both sides, the sky a sliver of light far above. Sore neck from continually gaping upwards. Below the narrow path a sharp fall to certain death in the ferocious Naar khola (river). Exhausting walk. Out like a light.

Blue sheep, common throughout the valley

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Himalayan Fawlty Towers

In Snow Leopard Fieldwork Diaries 16, Jonny and the team experience the Himalaya’s very own version of Fawlty Towers, and live to tell the tale. There’s never a dull moment in conservation social science research…

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The worst hotel in town happens to be the only hotel in town. Expect fireworks.

A tired and hungry bunch of snow leopard researchers arrive at their accommodation after seven hours of exhausting hiking in the baking sun. What they don’t realise is that they have arrived at the NarPhu valley’s version of Fawlty Towers, staffed by the venerable manager (let’s call him Basil) and his hapless assistant (let’s call him Manuel). The scene is set for a memorable stay.

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Goldrush

A caterpillar fungus with a street value more than some illicit drugs, for which people will risk life and limb to gather in Asia’s high mountains. Read all about it in Snow Leopard Fieldwork Diaries 15.

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The extraordinary tale of the extraordinary fungus found widely in some snow leopard habitat.

At this time of year, high up in the Himalayas, multitudes of people can be seen combing the ground beneath them, as if looking for something lost. They proceed slowly on their hands and knees, painstakingly covering every square inch of hillside. Every so often, one stops, pulls out a trowel and digs carefully in the soil. Then they lift their prize to examine it in the light – a small, wizened, root-like object, its pale yellow colour obscured by a dusting of soil. Welcome to yartsagunbu season in Nepal. Welcome to the goldrush.

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No free lunch

In Snow Leopard Fieldwork Diaries 14, Jonny and Maurice discuss the hidden perils of conservation social science research. Seven years on and they’re still publishing journal articles from this work.

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A bright idea for surveying tourists turns into a lot of extra work. Maurice and Jonny recount the sad story.

Maurice: ‘Rinzin, can you please check with him if he is happy to sell his last bottle of methylated spirits to us…’

Rinzin: ‘Yes, he is more than happy!’

Maurice: ‘Fantastic! And could you check with him that he really doesn’t need it…’

After much dialogue, headshaking and difficult facial expressions, it became clear there was, in fact, a problem.

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Wild Mustang

From its stunning arid landscapes to its Yakdonalds, the world’s deepest valley is full of surprises. Jonny gives a guided tour in Snow Leopard Fieldwork Diaries 13.

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A short digest of the team’s work over the last month in the western part of Annapurna Conservation Area.

Before it was a muscle-car or a horse breed from the New World, Mustang was a region of mid-western Nepal. It is the true heir to the title. Long before cars were invented or even before horses were introduced to North America by the Spanish, Mustang was the name given to this arid valley that runs south from the Tibetan border. Situated between the towering 8,000metre-plus peaks of Annapurna I and Dhaulagiri, its Kali Gandakhi gorge is the deepest in the world. The vast mountains to the east block the passage of the annual monsoon into the valley so that little rain waters its barren landscape. In fact, moonscape might be a more appropriate description. But in its starkness it is stunning.

Jeeps crossing ancient river beds of Mustang's Kali Gandahki gorge Jeep crossing ancient river beds of Mustang’s Kali Gandahki…

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Stairway to heaven

3 planes, 2 buses, 3 jeeps + 12 hours of walking on the stairway to heaven just to get to snow leopard country, and my closest encounter so far with the mountain ghost. Snow Leopard Fieldwork Diaries 12 explains.

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Jonny looks back on his exploratory trip to Nepal in the Autumn of 2013 and sets the scene for his return next week.

In October/November of last year I made my first fieldtrip to Nepal. This one was about setting the scene for the main research trips of 2014, which this blog has been describing. I came to do a practice run with the questionnaire I’d devised, to conduct interviews with locals on a range of background issues relevant to my study, and to check out the areas where the team and I would be collecting data later on: Sagarmatha (Everest) National Park (SNP) and Annapurna Conservation Area (ACA). As my government research permit hadn’t come through by then (or till a lot later – see Hakuna Matata), I wasn’t able to visit SNP. But I had got my research permit from the organisation that operates ACA – the

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Something old, something new

In Snow Leopard Fieldwork Diaries 11, I reflect on the ins and outs of doing a PhD. Health warning: can cause Permanent Head Damage.

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Doing a PhD is a bit like getting married: it’s a big commitment. Jonny explains, with a little help from an old wedding rhyme.

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