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Snow leopards spotted on top of world

Rare, resilient big cat makes comeback near Mount Everest

By Marsha Walton

Doctoral student Som Ale photographed the endangered snow leopard on the southern slopes of Mount Everest.

(CNN) -- For the first time in more than 40 years, scientists have spotted the elegant and endangered snow leopard on the southern slopes of Mount Everest.

Doctoral student Som Ale photographed the animal October 24, 2004. He has been studying the animals for many years, both as a biology student at the University of Illinois at Chicago and as an investigator for the research and conservation group Earthwatch Institute.

"Snow leopard sightings are very, very rare," said Ale, who grew up in Nepal.

There are only an estimated 4,500 to 7,000 of these big cats left in the wild. But that population is spread across 12 countries and nearly 775,000 square miles. This habitat includes some of the most remote regions of the world, from Afghanistan, across the Himalayas, to Lake Baikal in south central Russia.

Because the leopards are so elusive, Ale had been studying their likely prey in the Everest region, a wild goat called the Himalayan tahr. For the past several years, he said there had been increasing talk both among locals and tourists of snow leopard sightings, but nothing to document those spottings.

Ale suspected there might be a leopard near his camp when he heard a commotion from some of the goats.

"I heard the tahr whistling and making sounds that they were frightened," said Ale.

He said he was very excited when he spotted the leopards, but kept calm enough to focus his camera and get some photographs. Along with the two animals he saw, Ale saw the tracks of two more, the first confirmed sightings in the area since the early 1960s.

While word of Ale's observations made some local news in Nepal last autumn, he said he did not realize the significance of his photographs until he returned to the United States and talked with his former colleagues at Earthwatch Institute.

Working with evolutionary biologist Dr. Joel Brown, Ale had been studying the habits and the feeding behaviors of the tahr to gather clues about the snow leopards whereabouts and abundance. The 2004 field study was funded by the Wildlife Conservation Society, International Snow Leopard Trust, WWF-Nepal, Ev-K2-CNR (an international high altitude research project) and Provost's Award.

From 1999 to 2001, while working for Earthwatch Institute, Ale and others studied the behavior and habitat of blue sheep, or bharal, the snow leopard's prey in the Annapurna Conservation Area in Nepal.

Ale says in protecting the snow leopards, conservation groups must be conscious of the realities of the people living harsh lives in this remote part of the world. While it is a spiritual belief in much of the region that animals are to be respected; a serious conflict arises if a snow leopard attacks a local herd.

"People who live in this area depend on livestock, raising goats, sheep, cows, yaks and horses," said Ale.

"Snow leopards go for baby yaks, and they kill sheep and goats," said Ale. He said the loss of an animal killed by a snow leopard may cost a family a good portion of its annual income.

He said conservation groups have tried to come up with education programs to discourage local herders from killing snow leopards, by improving herding techniques and coming up with more effective ways of guarding their animals.

While the snow leopard's future is still seriously at risk, Ale says his sightings on Mount Everest are a testament to the animal's resilience, and give some hope for the future.

"It's good that snow leopards are dispersing and expanding their range on the top of the world, in contrast to other places where they are disappearing," said Ale.

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