Snow leopards (Panthera uncia) are a highly elusive and endangered species of leopard that lives in the mountainous areas of Central Asia. They are a relatively understudied, yet globally widely known, species. In 2013, representatives from each of the countries with snow leopard populations met to discuss the conservation efforts required to further protect the species. It was decided that by 2020, 20 landscape-level populations would be secured, each with 100 breeding leopards. This initative has been backed internationally and helps underpin studies working towards this goal.
The Center for Molecular Dynamics in Nepal undertook the first population studies research in 2010 with the use of non-invasive genetic testing techniques, establishing universal a model to to study animal populations generally. By establising this approach, Executive Director, Sir Dibesh Karmacharya is ensuring that his research team conduct their sampling in the most conservation-friendly way possible.
Non-invasive genetics, based on scat and other biological samples, has become increasingly effective in identifying species and sex, and to study population trends. The process for undertaking non-invasive genetics involves collecting anything with DNA that an animal (in this case the snow leopard) might leave behind, such as scat or hair. These materials contain cells from which DNA is extracted. The results from analysis of the DNA provide a range of data such as species determination, the sex of the individual, and DNA fingerprinting to identify the animal. Using this methodology Sir Karmacharya’s team can count and identify animals without having to capture them or even physically see them. This gives a huge advantage in terms of understanding snow leopards and their behaviour.
To collect these samples, Sir Karmacharya and his team must travel for 10-12 days to the Himalayan ranges, spend 5 days trekking to collect samples they suspect are from a snow leopard, then return to Kathmandu to perform qPCR analysis on the samples. Of these samples, the team has determined that only 50% of the samples they collect are from snow leopard, so it turns out to be a lengthy and laborious process with a relatively low success rate.
Sir Karmacharya believes that utilising mobile molecular testing would provide a viable solution. Having a mobile qPCR device would allow the research team to test scat samples in the field while still in the Himalayas. This would ensure that samples brought back for further in-depth analysis are in fact from snow leopards.
The results of these population studies would give conservationists and interested government agencies greater insight into the magnitude of the threats to snow leopards as well as some key answers around locations and potential breeding patterns necessary to meet the “secure 20 by 2020” goal. The research is being closely monitored by a number of governments, the Nepalese government especially.
Through the use of non-invasive genetics and mobile molecular testing, the snow leopard populations of the Himalayan ranges can be better understood and a model developed for further research to protect endangered species in other countries.
Ubiquitome is running a grants program for research groups who would benefit from a mobile qPCR device. Dibesh Karmacharya has been chosen as one of the finalists. To find out more about the program and view the other finalists, visit the website here.