Snow Leopard Trust

Senior Regional Field Biologist at the Snow Leopard Trust, Koustubh Sharma, talks snow leopards and the #WildForLife Big Cats Team Challenge.

1) What inspired you to get into this line of work?

The snow leopard’s elusiveness and my fascination with technology! The snow leopards have been equipped by evolution to survive in the high mountains and remain virtually invisible, a characteristic that gives them the name ‘Phantom of the Mountains’. The only way we can understand, and conserve the species better is by making efficient use of technology. Satellite telemetry, infrared camera traps, drones, artificial intelligence, remote sensing and advanced computing are some of the technological developments that are helping us understand, monitor and conserve snow leopards better. Technicalities aside, the opportunity I get to work in some of the most beautiful landscapes with some of the most large hearted, beautifully souled people are among two of my primary inspirations for working with snow leopards.

2) What is the most memorable (strange, funny, dangerous) thing that has happened to you in the field?

Seeing a snow leopard in the wild is an extremely rare opportunity. My most memorable experience was that of coming face to face with a snow leopard in Mongolia’s South Gobi when it climbed up a ledge with a near silent swoosh to find me standing there, within 2 meters. He looked at me with his big round surprised eyes, almost as if saying –‘how did you get so close to me, I am supposed to be invisible!?’. Those 3 seconds of silent interaction with a big male snow leopard with a heavily scarred face are etched permanently in my memory. The big cat quickly turned around and trotted way like a ribbon being pulled away on the mountain slope.

3) How do you plan to use funds from the Big Cats Team Challenge?

Despite years of research, we know little about how many snow leopards roam around the mountains spread across 12 countries and nearly 2 million square kilometers. The Bishkek Declaration 2017 highlights the need for scientifically sound methods to be applied to estimate snow leopard populations across its range. Recent technological advancements have made digital infrared camera traps available to researchers to serve as vigilant eyes in the mountains. The only catch is that cameras that are sturdy enough to sustain the hardship of a snow leopard habitat, last long enough to give opportunity to snow leopards to get their selfies taken, yet be quick enough to wake up at the hint of a movement within their field of view, are expensive. For usable data to estimate snow leopard populations through sophisticated computations, one needs tens of these camera traps operating simultaneously in the mountains for several weeks. The funds generated from the Big Cats Team Challenge will be used to expand our on-going efforts to estimate snow leopard population in the Kyrgyz Republic. Since these cameras constantly face professional hazards such as getting bitten by curious wild animals, washed away in floods, buried under an avalanche, and stolen or destroyed by poachers, additional camera trap units help the field research teams not only expand the sampling, but also replace damaged or lost units without losing any field time.

The Snow Leopard Trust was the winner of WildForLife's Big Cats Team Challenge in 2018. See how the Trust used the funds to advance their snow leopard conservation efforts: