Jan E. Janecka
Michael I. Jensen-Seaman
Philip E. Auron
Rodney M. Jackson
conservation genetics, felid, China, Central Asia, Tibetan Plateau, scat
Snow leopards (Panthera uncia) are a large cat endemic to the mountains of Central Asia. Despite their status as a flagship species, there are numerous knowledge gaps surrounding their population status, dietary ecology, and relationship with humans. Such knowledge gaps are prohibitive for effective conservation action for the species. Snow leopards are threatened by habitat loss, decreased prey availability, retaliatory killings, and large-scale negative impacts associated with climate change. In order to help bridge these gaps, noninvasive genetic methodologies were deployed in this work across several disciplines. Population genetic metrics were garnered at local, regional, and range-wide scales, data surrounding dietary ecology were acquired through the use of DNA metabarcoding, and information surrounding human-snow leopard dimensions was gained via structured interviews and assessments of frameworks for herder involvement in research efforts. Range-wide, snow leopards were found to vary in both their population status, genetics, and prey use. Analyses regarding snow leopards populations at local scales in China and Mongolia suggest that some populations are thriving, while others will require additional data to determine the need for potential conservation interventions. On a range-wide scale, genetic profiles broadly grouped into three clusters (Central, Northern, and Western) that may support subspecies status. The divergence between snow leopards belonging to the Northern and Central subspecies is particularly stark with very little evidence of gene flow across the Gobi Desert. Snow leopards possessed low levels of genetic diversity regardless of examination at range-wide, regional, or local scales. Across their range, snow leopards predominately consumed larger-bodied wild hoof stock species, though these varied based on availability. Livestock constituted anywhere from 0% to 33% of dietary repertoire, speaking to the need of herder support in reducing the potential for negative attitudes and retaliatory killings. In general, snow leopards displayed a wide breadth of prey items consumed, including within the realm of domestic animals. In China, snow leopards most overlapped in diet with Tibetan wolves (Canis lupus) regardless of location or time of year, with both species showing a high dependence on blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur) and pika (Ochotona spp.). Occurrences of livestock among the snow leopard and its sympatric counterparts were highest in the Tibetan wolf, which could contribute to the snow leopard being afforded more tolerance among herders. Herders in the Sanjiangyuan region of China had positive attitudes towards snow leopards overall, with religion and years of formal education playing an important role in shaping these attitudes. However, the role of livestock loss in shaping attitudes revealed itself to be much more complicated. One way of reducing livestock loss is through the deployment of non-lethal deterrents, such as flashing lights. The effectiveness of flashing lights at deterring predators from livestock was perceived by herders to be high, but functional effectiveness was limited in interpretation due to the majority of domestic animal attacks occurring during the day by wolves. Results from this indicate that herders approve of and will deploy user-friendly, small, and mobile devices with familiar characteristics, but that complications in designing research studies can limit further analytic assessments. Future snow leopard research should consider the value of tailored research efforts based on knowledge surrounding genetics, prey availability, and the factors that impact human attitudes towards the species within a particular area. However, the expansive distribution of the snow leopard also mandates that trans-boundary cooperation and communication is prioritized. Local communities within snow leopard habitat play a crucial role in the conservation success of the species, and can serve as allies in protection efforts. Greater incorporation of their local ecological knowledge and skillsets can provide the additional resources necessary to continue advancing current understanding of snow leopards.
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Janecka JE, Hacker CE, Broderick J, Pulugulla S, Auron P, Ringling M, Nelson B, Munkhtsog B, Hussain S, Davis B, Jackson R. 2020. Noninvasive genetics and genomics sheds light on the status, phylogeography, and evolution of elusive carnivores: The case of the snow leopard. In: Conservation Genomics of Mammals – Integrative Research Using Novel Approaches. J Ortega and JE Maldonado, Eds. Springer, Switzerland. Pp. 83-120.