- There are an estimated 4,500 to 7,500 snow leopards remaining in the wild
- The cub may have been drawn to the noises the camera made, Rakowski says
- The large cat's organs are used in traditional Chinese medicine
Wildlife researchers using hidden cameras have captured rare images of snow leopards in a remote mountainous region of Tajikistan -- including shots of a cub stealing one of the cameras.
A research team sponsored by the conservation groups Fauna and Flora International (FFI) and Panthera set up 11 camera stations in the rugged Wakhan valley near the Afghan border and left them for three months to record what passed by.
The cameras are placed in pairs so that they can photograph both sides of the animals, which can be identified by their unique spot patterns, said Sarah Rakowski, communications officer for FFI.
When researchers went to the sites in the Zorkul nature reserve to retrieve their cameras, which have motion detectors on them to trigger the shutter, they found images showing at least five of the rare cats, including a family with two cubs, FFI said in a statement last week.
But one of the cameras was missing. The remaining camera of the pair solved the mystery when its photos showed one of the cubs sniffing, gnawing on and finally ripping the other device from its mounting and running away with it.
Rakowski speculated that the cub might have been drawn to the slight sounds made by the cameras.
"The leopards are a bit shy, so whatever drew them, we are really happy with it in the end," she said.
The snow leopard is an endangered cat with spotted smoky gray fur that keeps it warm and camouflages it in the remote mountainous regions of central Asia where it lives. They can jump as far as 50 feet and take down prey three times their size, according to the National Geographic website.
Hunting and habitat loss have sharply reduced the numbers of the large feline in recent decades, experts say, with an estimated 4,500 and 7,500 snow leopards left in the wild, scattered across Central Asia. Their populations have declined by as much as 20% over the past 16 years, the Wildlife Conservation Society says.
The animal also faces threats from poachers and others who capture the cats for illegal trade. Their warm pelts bring high prices and their organs are used in traditional Chinese medicine, the National Geographic website said.
Researchers say even though the Zorkul project revealed new populations of snow leopard, more must be done to ensure their survival.
"Snow leopards have low population densities, which means that large areas need to be protected in order to conserve this species effectively," said Dr. Alex Diment of the FFI.
"This survey has revealed an unusually high number of snow leopards in the Wakhan Mountains, which indicates that this could be a key region for snow leopard conservation."