Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Cat Call

The Base Camp
Aloud siren tore through the frozen night, waking us. It was not the alarm clock, but was louder than that and piercing! Only after Orjan had switched off the siren did we realise what it was.
It was 11 in the night and we were in the midst of the Tost Mountains of the Gobi Desert in Mongolia, cooped in a Ger (a Mongolian nomadic tent), braving the temperature hovering between -10 degree celsius at night and 4 degree celsius during the day. The mountains here are not very high; the highest summit rises only a little above 2,500 m. The terrain is rugged in a few parts and gentle and rolling at others.

Orjan Johansson, our project head, a fellow PhD student from Sweden and I had laid out snares to catch snow leopards and put satellite collars on them in an effort to study them. The siren indicated that one of the snares had caught something. Very likely, a snow leopard!
Orjan and I searching for a snow leopard kill site!

Having so far collared 14 cats over the last three years in this region, Orjan has become a veteran of sorts. The third member of our team is Carol, a vet from Australia, volunteering with Orjan. The last three years saw me studying the snow leopard in India and now I am here to pick up tricks on collaring the cats and working on a collaborative project on the Ibex – the primary prey of the snow leopard here.
It took us an entire day to drive here from Dalanzadgad, the nearest town with a sizeable population. We did not come across a single vehicle on the way: just the never ending desert peppered with rocky hills. Stocked-up to last a few months, the three of us shared the circular interiors of the Ger with a fireplace, a stove and a whole bunch of technical equipment like binoculars, cameras, GPS, computers, etc.
Ibex, the primary prey of the snow leopard

This was to be our home for the next three and half months. I wondered how long we could last. This self-imposed confinement in wilderness has a way of making people cranky and grumpy. Except the snow leopard collaring, which is the most exciting and adventurous activity, life in the desert threatens to get very boring and mundane. Life here revolves in cycles of three days. Every third day one of us drives 3 kms to an old and abandoned Soviet well to fill up our water canisters. We make sure everything in the Ger and around are alright, check thesolar panels/batteries and indulge in shooting darts at times, while all along waiting for the fire-truck siren!
I am ready to find out which one of the 14 snares has triggered. Visiting every individual snare and physically checking them would be time consuming. It would disturb the surroundings and could scare away any cats that we could potentially collar. While Orjan readies the dart, drugs and the dart gun, Carol fills up the thermos with hot water and readies the vet supplies.
Soon we are riding two All-Terrain Vehicles on our way to the snare that has been triggered. Stopping 200 mts. away from the snare we cut out the engines while Orjan barks the instructions at us. As we cautiously approach the snare we can see two eyes shining in the light of my headlamp. A snow leopard indeed! Noticing us, it tries to hide behind a rock but the snare cable forces him back. Giving up the struggle, the animal sits down with its side towards us. We can see that it is a largish animal with a collar around its neck. Of the 14 leopards that Orjan has collared so far, five still carry the collars. Of them three frequent this area often. Two of them are females: Khasha (Jade in English) and Tengger (Sky). Both have two cubs each.

Orjan having darted the animal in the thigh, we quietly move away. Minutes later, it is fast asleep. It is Aztai or the Lucky One – it is the eighth time that he has stepped into a snare.
Freeing the animal from the snare and getting him to flat open ground is our first task. Carol very skillfully pulls out a syringe of blood sample from Aztai. This will provide us with vital information on the prevalence of diseases and allow us to build a genetic tree of snow leopards in the region. The collar still has six months of battery left but we decide to put a new one, unwilling to lose the opportunity! While he sleeps, we monitor his body temperature, heart rate, pulse, breathing, blood oxygen levels, etc.

Collaring our first snow leopard of the season

The duration the animal is to stay immobilised has to be carefully checked, for the sub-zero temperature of the surroundings could be fatal. A drugged animal’s body temperature could easily drop and it could suffer from hypothermia!
Snow leopards are one of the least known and studied large cats of the world. It was first photographed in the seventies by George Schaller. In fact, so scanty is the information about them that that they are, often, aptly referred to as ‘the ghosts of the mountains’. Our research is a maiden attempt to provide insights into this elusive predator’s life and help manage the few remaining natural habitats left in the mountain ranges of Central Asia, which are opening up for mining activities. The satellite collars are now telling us how much space these animals need, how far they go in search of mates, where the cubs go when they are old enough, etc. If the cats spend unusually long hours at any one of the places it’s understood that they had made a kill, like in Aztai’s case. He was at one location for three days gorging on a large ibex, we learnt later.
Though this area has been designated a Local Protected Area, it is increasingly threatened by the activities of mining companies that have procured licenses in mineral exploration. Ninja mining, the illegal, open-cast mining for gold, is also another activity that plagues the area. The border with China, the sink for all the minerals of Mongolia, is barely 40 kms away from here.
Signs of poaching

With the last screw bolted tight on Aztai's new collar we are ready to wake him up. Orjan loads a new drug in the syringe and administers two shots; one on the shoulder and the other on the thigh. We move away, leaving it to shake off its dizziness and disappear into the depths of the mountains!
Now, every weekend, we will be privy to the information of Aztai’s movement, like the other four collared ones. The collar sends the exact geographical coordinates of every five hours to a satellite circling the earth. The satellite relays data to our office in the USA which a staff member compiles and emails to us on our satellite phone.
A few days after Aztai, we are again woken up by the fire-truck siren! This time it is early dawn. It is Khasha's one-and-a half year old cub! Although young and still dependant on its mother, he is almost as big as any other adult snow leopard. Another smooth operation for 40 minutes and he walks off into the rising sun! Within two days that satellite confirms that he is back with his mother Khasha. Quite an engaging assignment this is!