A female snow leopard stalks along a snowy ridge in the South Gobi Desert of Mongolia. She's looking to catch a meal for herself and her two young cubs, who are waiting back in the den.
Meanwhile, scientists took the mother's absence as a rare opportunity to study her cubs. The Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation and Snow Leopard Trust have been monitoring this female for months, and by tagging the cubs with small chips, they'll now be able to track them. Camera traps set up throughout the area will catch photos of their comings and goings.
The rare cats have been monitored in the Tost mountain range since 2009, making it both the longest and most well-studied snow leopard population in the world. The species is listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List.
The area has been under acute threat from mining, a major enterprise in Mongolia. Thanks in part to the conservation efforts of the local community, Tost was declared a National Nature Reserve in 2016. (Read about the poaching that threatens snow leopards worldwide.)
Now one of the largest protected habitats in the world, the Tost Nature Reserve now serves as a much-needed bridge between the Great Gobi and the Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park. Good thing, since recently collected data shows that individual snow leopards require home ranges larger than the island of Aruba, 44 times larger than researchers previously thought.
Tost's snow leopard population is currently stable, with 23 cats now collared and tracked through GPS, including the mother and her two precious cubs.
The Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation considers females with cubs particularly valuable to their studies. Their research can reveal crucial information for conservation, such as the age at which snow leopards first conceive their young, litter sizes, and survival rates.
Maintaining healthy populations of snow leopards creates a ripple effect across their entire ecosystem. The powerful, agile felines play an important role in the mountains of Central Asia and the Tibetan Plateau. If snow leopard populations are thriving, so are a breadth of other species.