Beyond the Last Village (Again)

By Byron Weckworth, Ph.D.
Former Director, Snow Leopard Program and Former Director, Conservation Genetics

Snow leopard

“What is where and why?”

This concise question summarizes the field of biogeography: the study of where a species has existed and why it is—or no longer is—there. Biogeography may be an unfamiliar term to you, but it has important applications to landscape management and conservation.

This question, or more specifically the question “where are snow leopards found, and why,” has brought me and my colleagues to the northernmost point of the country of Myanmar to search for snow leopards.

Our journey here started several years ago, when long-time Panthera supporter and incredible wildlife conservation philanthropist Andy Sabin asked where snow leopards were found. The response was the typically hedged answer: “12 countries across Central Asia and maybe Myanmar.”

The far north tip of Myanmar, where the southeast edge of the Himalayan range passes, is extremely remote; no transportation infrastructure exists nearby, nor do major settlements through which supply lines can be maintained. At the time, no one had yet had the means (or the gumption) to properly survey that region—but Andy was determined to change that. With that, Andrew Sabin Family Foundation generously committed the resources needed to launch the first ever expedition to survey for snow leopards in Myanmar.

If you’re an avid Panthera fan, this may sound familiar. In the 1990s, our own CEO, Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, carried out his own expedition in the lower parts of this region, which he documents in his book Beyond the Last Village. The results of his research were momentous; he described a new species of deer and documented the extinction of the Taron pygmy people, among other discoveries. His endeavors in this remote corner of Asia played a vital role in the formation of the Mt. Hkakabo Razi National Park, a region through which this expedition will pass.

The highest elevations of this region are typical snow leopard habitat, but no surveys have been conducted there until now. Occasional patrols passing through the area looking for signs of illegal activity have seen blue sheep, a main prey species for snow leopards, but not snow leopards themselves.

Group photo

I’ll be joined on the expedition by two colleagues (Jigmet Dadul and KC Namgyal) from our partners at the Snow Leopard Conservancy - India Trust and three local forest rangers who are familiar with the area. The six of us will take two weeks to get to our base camp, nestled at 3,500 m (11,483 ft) and then spend 25 days cresting ridgelines over 4,500 m (14,764 ft) and transecting valley bottoms, looking for snow leopard sign and setting up camera traps to capture the presence of snow leopards and document the biodiversity of this remote, high elevation region.

One step at a time! As you read this, we are hitting the trail, starting in lowland rainforests, heading up through the broad-leaved, semi-deciduous temperate forests to the evergreen sub-alpine zones that provide entry to the realm of the snow leopard…and perhaps their 13th range state.

Click here for more information on Panthera's Snow Leopard Program.