Could you summarize what you do now?
I am a University of Washington PhD student leading a research project (in collaboration with Panthera) aimed at understanding how snow leopards interact with other large carnivores (mainly wolves, but also bears) and their shared prey in a relatively intact ecosystem in Kyrgyzstan (no livestock, few people). This involves live trapping to deploy GPS collars, as well as noninvasive camera trapping and genetics. I’m also involved in research in Tajikistan investigating how traditional herding impacts snow leopards, wolves, and bears as well as the snow leopard conservation value of community based trophy hunting initiatives (for ibex and argali – the main prey species), which seek to give local people (“traditional hunters” aka “poachers”) an incentive to protect wildlife as an important economic resource.
What does a typical field day look like?
Since I work mainly with Kyrgyz students and rangers, the days are always punctuated throughout with tea (“chai”). When we’re trapping, we monitor the traps all night long using transmitters that signal a capture, then visually inspect the traps each morning. After that, we do visual surveys of ungulate behaviors, abundance and distribution – i.e. we sit in mountainsides and watch animals through spotting scopes. Finally, we investigate clusters of locations recorded by the collars to find kills, resting sites, and dens, in order to understand how snow leopards use the landscape. This can mean following coordinates a thousand meters up a mountainside, or strolling casually on horseback along canyon floors. If we find a kill, we determine the prey species, sex and condition, and look for signs of scavenging as well.
What inspired you to start doing this?
A passion for wildlife, mountains, and the unknown.
Why do you think it’s important – how does it benefit the animals?
Conservation depends on reliable knowledge (aka science). The more we understand, the better informed our decisions can be. A generation ago, we knew so little about snow leopards that we had to assume they were at great risk of extinction. As we learn more about them, we’re finding some signs that are more encouraging, and finding new ways to help people coexist with them.
What is the hardest thing about doing this?
Being away from friends and loved ones for long, cold, lonely periods of time. Writing from the field now, I’m still struggling with learning a dear friend died in a motorcycle accident last week – it’s hard to be away at times like this, but the mountains sure help the healing process.
What is the most rewarding thing about it?
Collaborating with local people who are inspired to make a difference for wildlife and seeing the ideals of conservation take root in new hearts and minds. In particular, mentoring a new generation of young local conservationists who will have more ability to make a difference in their home countries than I ever will.
What if others want to help but don’t want to go into the field. How can they help?
There are many worthy organizations working on snow leopard conservation and trying novel ways to engage communities in protecting wildlife (WCS, Snow Leopard Trust, Panthera, Snow Leopard Conservancy, and others). Along with knowledge deficiencies, simply paying to enforce environmental protection is a hugely limiting factor. Many groups are trying different ways to incentivize and pay for this sort of enforcement, often at the community level. Donating money, time (we always need help sorting through data), expertise (I’ve benefitted greatly from some conscientious amateur solar power engineers) … all are great ways to contribute.
Finally, do you have any advice for a young student wanting to study something like this?
Get involved with wildlife agencies and conservation organizations near you to get a feel for what fieldwork is like – a lot of people are surprised to learn that they don’t enjoy it like they thought they would. Get educated. Learn to love statistics and science. Seriously, statistics are your friend. No really. Talk to people!
Reach out to people doing research or conservation you’re interested in and make a connection or do an informational interview. That sort of networking is critical, and is exactly how I got the opportunities that led me to where I am today.