GPS tracking vital to protecting endangered big cats. Here’s why

I was in Kathmandu recently when I received some great news from my WWF-Nepal colleagues: For the first time ever, a female snow leopard had been successfully fitted with a satellite collar in the Eastern Himalayas of Nepal.

Snow Leopard (Uncia Uncia) in Asia. © R.Isotti, A.Cambone / Homo Ambiens / WWF
Snow Leopard (Panthera uncia) in Asia. © R.Isotti, A.Cambone / Homo Ambiens / WWF

While she is the third snow leopard to be fitted with a GPS collar in the Kangchenjunga Conservation Area (two male snow leopards were collared in 2013 and 2015), she is the first female to be tracked using the network of satellites.
We also use GPS collars to track tigers. The first wild tiger to be fitted with a GPS collar was translocated from Chitwan National Park to Bardia National Park in 2011. Working closely with the government of Nepal and the National Trust for Nature Conservation, we hope to collar more tigers in the future with your support.

Data received from collars on tigers and snow leopards helps us study roaming, feeding and mating behaviour for these big cats. It assists us in identifying if and where a species’ habitat crosses country borders, helping us to enhance our collaboration efforts with neighboring India and China. This is important for protecting big cats like snow leopards and tigers as they require large spaces to roam and the majority of their habitats cross different countries.
Satellite collars also aid our anti-poaching efforts, which is especially important for protecting tigers as they live in human-dominated landscapes. The data from the collar maps the animal’s location, which helps authorities direct anti-poaching efforts to important habitat areas.

Why GPS collars are an important conservation tool

  • Snow leopards, also known as “ghosts of the mountains” for their elusiveness, are among the least known cats of the world. In addition to their elusive behavior, their sparse distribution among remote habitats makes them one of the most challenging species to study.
  • Tigers’ habitats are constantly changing due to their span across human-dominated landscapes. As a result, we are in constant need of updated data.
  • By fitting tigers and snow leopards with GPS collars, we can monitor individuals through satellites from all over the world using Google Maps.
  • The GPS collar currently fitted to the female snow leopard is programmed to transmit live data, including location, activity and ambient temperature, every four hours and is expected to send us a total of 2,190 locations over a battery life of one year.

How we use the data

  • The GPS collars provide crucial data that we use to identify important habitats and the pathways linking these habitats in order to develop science-based conservation strategies.
  • The identification of important habitat areas also helps inform anti-poaching strategies.
  • We use the data to determine where, when and how often the tracked cats make kills. Identifying kill sites helps us determine which areas are important for prey and require protection.
  • The data helps us determine whether the species is travelling to neighbouring countries, and thus whether similar levels of protection are required on both sides of the border. For example, we already know that one of the collared male snow leopards travelled from Nepal to India and back five times in one year.
  • We use the data to develop climate smart conservation plans. By comparing the habitat range of big cats with a climate projection map, we can predict how their habitat may likely change as a result of climate change. This helps us determine which areas will be the least affected by climate change and are the most important for habitat protection.

Why the collared female snow leopard is important

  • By tracking the female snow leopard, we will now have better data to compare the space requirements of males and females.
  • The data from the collared female snow leopard will provide us with important information regarding the mating and breeding behavior of the species. For instance, reduced movement and activity during the breeding season may indicate that she has given birth to cubs. This provides us with significant information about the location of breeding sites, helping inform us of areas that require the utmost protection.

Rinjan Shrestha is WWF-Canada’s lead specialist in Asian big cats. He has a PhD in wildlife ecology.