Snow Leopards, Wolves and the Ecology of Fear on the Roof of the World

By Shannon Kachel
Conservation Scientist

Snow leopard camera trap

April 25, 2018

Thanks to the committed efforts of dozens of people, 2017 was an eventful year for Panthera’s Snow Leopard Ecology Study in Kyrgyzstan. Over the course of four months and two expeditions—and in spite of record snowfalls, rivers swollen dangerously with snowmelt, temperatures as cold as -30° C, more than a few technological mishaps, and one debilitating (but, thankfully, recoverable) injury—the project team managed to deploy GPS collars on two more snow leopards, tracking their location at intervals as short as every two hours.

And, for the first time, we also collared wolves. While snow leopards may be famously elusive, wolves are far more trap shy, evading ours entirely in 2016. Safely trapping and collaring wolves demands meticulous attention to details, patience, creativity, and ingenuity. Credit for cracking that challenge goes squarely to the spring season team, led by Canadian biologist and trapping expert Oliver Barker, Finnish spatial analyst Piia Kortsalo, and Panthera’s Kyrgyz Snow Leopard Program biologist Rahim Kulenbekov.

The team collars a wolf as part of our snow leopard ecology study in Kyrgyzstan. ©C.MEYER/PANTHERA

But wait. Wolves? Isn’t this a snow leopard study?

Although snow leopards spark the imagination as solitary sentinels of lofty, lonely mountains, the reality is that snow leopards — like all species — exist only within a rich tapestry of connections and relationships with their environment and the other species that inhabit it.

To understand and protect snow leopards in our rapidly changing world, we need to understand something of those connections. While many species’ interactions—like predation, competition, and suppression—are detrimental to at least some of the players involved, species can also interact in ways that benefit, or facilitate, one another.

This is where wolves come into the picture.

Despite competing for the same prey species, like ibex and argali, wolves and snow leopards somewhat paradoxically coexist together across large swaths of the snow leopard’s range. Throughout the high mountains of Central Asia, declining numbers of ibex and argali are one of the main threats to snow leopards. Some concerned governments even offer a bounty on wolves, partially to reduce competition for snow leopards. Counterintuitively, however, wolves may actually benefit snow leopards, if perhaps indirectly.

Wolf teeth

A growing body of research into the so-called “ecology of fear” suggests that even small populations of wolves can have strong nonconsumptive effects on their prey by creating a perception of risk that causes prey animals to modify their behavior. This in turn can have cascading effects on the other species with whom those prey animals interact.

In the classic formulation of this type of trophic cascade, wolves in Yellowstone scare elk away from riverside areas, releasing riparian plants from elk feeding pressure. But the cascade might also “splash” back up to other predators. In the Tien Shan, that means snow leopards.

As we are learning from our collared animals, snow leopards use stealth and camouflage to stalk prey on rugged slopes, while wolves rely on speed and endurance to chase prey across gentle slopes and river bottoms. For their part, ibex and argali are left juggling tradeoffs between food and safety—a balancing act that is complicated by the differences in predator hunting styles.

Kennerknecht snow leopard

This contrasting “landscape of fear,” which leaves prey with nowhere truly safe, may ultimately benefit both predators. Prey avoiding risk from wolves flee to the immediate safety of the cliffs above, but therefore expose themselves to greater risk of falling victim to snow leopards, and vice versa. This complementary risk means that each predator has more hunting opportunity than prey numbers alone suggest.

This all highlights the need for conservation that aims to protect the entire ecosystem of relationships and interactions among species.

Of course, snow leopards and wolves antagonize each other, too, potentially undermining any positive effects that arise from these indirect interactions. GPS collars give us the opportunity to find out.

Wolf in the distance

Excitingly, we’re already seeing a level of spatial overlap and interaction that exceeds our expectations. We even watched in near real-time as snow leopard M3, who has earned a reputation as particularly bold and aggressive for his normally shy species, made repeated visits to a presumed wolf den area. For now, it seems as if wolves and snow leopard all escaped the close encounter unscathed.

Having wolves and snow leopards collared simultaneously, we finally have the unprecedented opportunity to understand both the direct and indirect interactions between the two species at a level of detail that was previously unimaginable.

The insights we hope to gain will not only improve our understanding of the ecology of snow leopards and the animals that share their mountain home, but help us better protect these ecosystems for generations to come.

Learn more about our efforts to protect snow leopards here.