As if snow leopards weren't pressured enough, researchers have uncovered a new threat which might severely affect populations: infection.
Snow leopards are solitary predators which inhabit alpine and subalpine zones at elevations of over 3,000 meters (9,800 feet) in the mountain ranges of Central and South Asia. It's estimated that less than 10,000 individuals survive in the wild and, even for these survivors, life isn't easy.
The threats snow leopards face are numerous, although they generally focus around conflict with humans. Global change and habitat destruction are restricting their range, while poaching and conflicts with herders are putting even more pressure on snow leopard population. The snow leopard is considered highly vulnerable, and any additional threat could be decisive.
In 2011, researchers were alarmed when they found four snow leopard corpses in the South Gobi province of Mongolia, with what seemed to be an unexplained cause of death. They wanted to see if an infection was to blame, but solving this riddle wasn't easy.
The problem is that finding and studying snow leopards is extremely difficult. Not only do they live in some of the world's most inaccessible areas, but they're also masters of camouflage and generally avoid human contact with impressive agility. Even so, biologists at the Snow Leopard Trust and Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation were able to capture 20 snow leopards, carrying out a range of blood tests to assess their health.
All but one were in excellent shape, but several zoonotic pathogens were discovered in their blood, including Coxiella burnetii, which can also spread to livestock and even humans, causing Q fever -- an uncommon but life-threatening condition. Two other notable pathogens were Leptospira species, which are readily transmissible to humans and can also lead to potentially life-threatening infections, and Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite capable of infecting all warm-blooded animals and causes toxoplasmosis. In other words, not only are these infections threatening snow leopards, but they could also potentially spread to livestock and population. Researchers also noted that snow leopards had quite a few ticks, which also carried diseases that can spread for animals to people.
It's unclear how widespread the infection risk is, but if it reaches an epidemic level, the effects could be disastrous, says lead author Carol Esson, of James Cook University in Australia.
"A disease epidemic could be devastating to wild snow leopards due to their low numbers and many other threats to their existence. Although the zoonotic pathogens identified in this study did not appear to cause illness to the snow leopards in the short term, they have caused illness in other wild cats. And so, there is now a need to establish surveillance to monitor for potential longer-term disease impacts on this vulnerable population," Esson explains.
This new knowledge can help researchers establish a baseline for the health of these felines, tracking any potential changes as they occur. Having access to this type of information is important for conservationists, particularly when it comes to such an elusive creature. But this can do more than just help snow leopards, researchers say.
Raising awareness in local nomadic communities is also important, especially since the infections were also found in the local herds. Herders can take measures to boost animal health, which will reduce the overall risk of infection and potentially increase the income of these communities.
"Raising awareness in local communities about the possibility of illness in their animals and themselves could lead to improvements to herd health, boosting their productivity and income," says Esson.
Snow leopards' typically feed on wild herbivores such as blue sheep or ibex. However, in some areas, they have started preying on livestock, bringing them into conflict with herders.
The study was published in the journal Infection Ecology and Epidemiology.