Editor’s Note: This fall, Meyer spent five weeks in the field in the Tien Shan Mountains in southeastern Kyrgyzstan’s Sarychat Ertash State Nature Reserve as a Panthera Winston Cobb Memorial Fellow, joining a team of researchers studying snow leopard ecology. A field technician for the Yellowstone Cougar Project, he holds a wildlife conservation degree from the University of Washington.
Never before had I needed to clear my throat so badly. We crept forward, moving single file through the rocky terrain, carefully planning each step to minimize the amount of noise we made. My eyes flicked from the ground in front of me to the horizon. The VHF transmitter on F3’s collar told us we should be able to see her.
F3, our most recently collared snow leopard and third female in the study, was feeding on an ibex kill. We knew the young cat had previously lactated—and this was important, because she could have large cubs with her.
So little is known about snow leopards that discovering anything about their behavior is noteworthy. In order to differentiate between the hunting and feeding behavior of a lone female and that of a female with cubs, we needed to know the status of each individual. This required some poor souls to hike out and observe snow leopards feeding.
We were finally in position, and now all we had to do was spot F3. It sounded easy enough: finding a black-and-white cat in a snowless field of rocks and shrubs.
There were three of us, all equipped with binoculars and the knowledge that F3 was right in front of our eyes. Nothing.
Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a slight movement. “Oh, it’s just a shrub moving,” I thought. “Wait, no, a tail!”
We had spotted her! She was slowly moving away from her kill and into the open. Once she noticed us, she stopped and disappeared. I had heard about large cats vanishing without moving but had attributed it to researchers exaggerating about the elusiveness of their study species. Now I believe it.
It took longer than I would like to admit to relocate her—and it turned out she hadn’t actually moved. When I found her again, she was looking directly at us. After staring for a few moments, she moved off, so slowly yet efficiently that I lost her shape among the rocks. We quickly studied the kill site, looked for sign of cubs, then moved away as soon as possible.
She had killed a young ibex and, from what we could see, there was no evidence of cubs traveling with her. That did not mean that she does not have cubs—they could have snuck off without us noticing—but the information was still valuable. We cannot base our knowledge on just one experience with F3. We continued to search her clusters (after she left the kills from then on) and would search for tracks or additional sign of cubs. Before I left, we still had not found evidence of F3 traveling with cubs.
Working with Panthera’s Snow Leopard Program was a life changing experience. I learned new skills (trapping wolves and snow leopards with leg-hold traps and snares, living in a very remote area, horseback riding and planning logistics in a language that I didn’t speak) that I wouldn’t have been able to afford without the Winston Cobb fellowship. Being present for the collaring of snow leopards (F3 and F4) was an experience few individuals are ever afforded.
My crowning achievement during my fellowship was being able to scout an area, find sign, and set a trap. Shannon Kachel, the project Principal Investigator, watched closely but let me do all of the work. A week after leaving Kyrgyzstan and returning to Yellowstone, I learned that the trap I set captured a snow leopard! I wish I could have been there, but just knowing that I was able to put what I learned into practice was an amazing feeling.
Going forward, I will use the experience I gained working in Kyrgyzstan to continue my work in Yellowstone while also looking to get into a graduate school program. I am incredibly excited to follow the progress of Panthera’s Snow Leopard Program because the research they are doing is leading the field and will bring insights into snow leopard biology that have never been done before. Being a part of it was incredible.
Panthera's efforts to protect the snow leopard in Kyrgyzstan include training wildlife detection dogs to stem poaching and trafficking of snow leopards and their prey; working with community-based conservancies to predator-proof livestock corrals and establish nature tourism programs to support livelihoods; and releasing cats into the wild when they are captured by farmers. Learn more about how we conserve snow leopards throughout their range.