From the Field

Tracking the Three-Legged Snow Leopard

Something was wrong with the snow leopard. The scientists watched as the tranquilizers kicked in and the cat sank down to the bottom of the cage. Moving closer, they realized that the young male was injured: his front-right leg was severed below the shoulder.

Here in western Mongolia’s Sutai Mountains, Nature Conservancy scientists are collaring snow leopards to better understand when and how they interact with local herders’ goats and sheep. These data will help design grazing plans that keep both leopards and livestock safe.

Tracking the Storm

Known as “the ghosts of the mountains,” snow leopards are found throughout Asia’s high mountain ranges. One of the most elusive big cats on earth, they are threatened by habitat degradation, poaching, and a decline in prey species due to competition with livestock.

Mongolia has about 1,000 of the world’s remaining leopards, clustered in the country’s south and west. In the Bumbat and Sutai Mountains, The Nature Conservancy is working with the Mongolian Academy of Sciences and Moscow State University to protect leopards and herders’ livestock. But to do so, they must first catch and collar leopards.

The scientists recognized this particular cat; in October 2016, they captured him in Khavtsgait Valley, about 30 kilometers to the southeast, and fitted him with a satellite collar. Caught amid a thunderstorm, they named him Shuurga, which means storm in Mongolian. But after just six months the signal from his collar went dark.

“Somehow he smashed his collar, and after March 2017 we didn’t get any signal,” says Bayarjargal Yunden, director of science for the Conservancy’s Mongolia program. And somewhere between then and now, he also lost a leg.

Scientists collect data and attach a collar to the tranquilized leopard. Photo © The Nature Conservancy

The team worked quickly. Laying Shuurga down gently on a mat, they fitted a new collar around his neck and gathered blood and genetic samples. The short stump that remained of his leg was still bloody and ragged, the wound was likely less than 2 months old, and bullet wounds grazed his back.

Shuurga is one of two collared leopards in the study; the second is a female leopard also collared in October 2016. The collars around their necks transmit a GPS location every hour, creating a detailed map of the leopards’ movements. “The data from these collars will help us understand where there are key points of interaction with livestock,” says Eddie Game, the Conservancy’s lead scientist for the Asia-Pacific region.

The Nature Conservancy is working with Mongolian herders to implement sustainable grazing practices. Yunden says that Mongolian herders traditionally moved their livestock each season, based on observation of pasture condition. They also reserved certain areas for winter pasture, keeping them ungrazed during the rest of the year to ensure an adequate winter food supply.

But the system broke down in the 1990s as Mongolia transitioned away from socialism. Yunden says the government dismantled the state herding collectives and privatized livestock ownership. Herders seeking more income increased their flocks, and the country’s livestock population jumped from 22 million in 1990 to 66.2 million by 2017.

“That resulted in overgrazing, land degradation and desertification, struggles between herders for grazing areas, and conflicts between livestock and wild animals,” explains Yunden.

Goats getting ready for milking in the Khovd Province of Mongolia. Photo credit: © Eddie Game / The Nature Conservancy

Today, as part of a government conservation incentive program, communities can obtain exclusive grazing rights to an area of land if they create and enforce a grazing management plan.

“We’d like to incorporate snow leopards into these plans at a landscape scale,” says Game. “Ideally, we could identify the risky times for interaction, and work with the communities to design the grazing plan to minimize leopard-livestock interactions.”

Game says that conservationists don’t have a good understanding of how local leopards’ territories overlap with grazing areas, hence the need to gather data on the cats’ movements. The research team is also collaring two ibex, a common prey species for snow leopards, which will allow them to compare grazing areas for both livestock and the leopard’s wild prey.

And in 2015, Game and Yunden deployed more than 40 camera traps throughout the two mountain ranges to get a more accurate population assessment for the area. “It’s important to know that there’s a healthy population here,” says Game, “because it adds to the overall population assessment in Mongolia and confirms this as an important site.”

This type of integrated, community-based conservation is critical for snow leopard survival, because the species has large home ranges that are difficult to protect. Research shows that of the 170 protected areas in the snow leopard’s global range, 40 percent are smaller than the home range of a single adult male.

Shuurga wakes up after scientists fit a new collar. Photo © The Nature Conservancy

Finding Solutions for Human-leopard Conflict

As Shuurga’s injuries attest, human conflict is still a major challenge for snow leopard conservation. Game suspects that the cat caught his leg in an illegal marmot trap, and then either severed his limb in the struggle to get free, or suffered such a severe injury that the lower leg fell off.

The bullet marks are another mystery.

Since October, Shuurga’s second collar is working well, sending back detailed data on the cat’s movements. “There’s a mining site in the area, and Shuurga usually stays very close to the town where the workers live,” says Yunden. (The second cat, a 5-year old female, occupies a territory farther up the mountain.)

“We think that Shuurga’s injury makes it really hard for him to capture wild animals,” says Yunden, “so maybe it’s easier for him to catch livestock.” The bullet wounds could be the result of a herder defending their flock.

Collar data from Shuurga in 2016 and after his 2017 recapture. Graphic © The Nature Conservancy

Retribution killing for livestock loss is another significant threat for snow leopards, but Game says that previous research indicates that levels of human-leopard conflict are comparatively low in Mongolia, where people tend to have larger herds. And research shows that leopards prefer natural prey species, even in areas where that prey is outnumbered by livestock.

“But at the same time, the snow leopard populations just isn’t that big,” says Game. The global population numbers between 7,500 and 8,000 individuals, about 1,000 of which are spread out across Mongolia. “With such a small population, you don’t have to lose that many leopards before it starts to make an impact,” he says, “especially if they’re isolated.”

Lack of awareness about leopard behavior is another problem. In addition to incorporating leopards into grazing plans, the Conservancy is working with the Snow Leopard Trust to help educate herders about leopards, in the hopes of reducing these killings.

“We need to work with herders to identify solutions,” says Yunden. “Without them it’s just not possible to protect these animals.”

Justine E. Hausheer

Justine E. Hausheer is a science writer for The Nature Conservancy, covering the innovative fieldwork and research conducted by Conservancy’s scientists around the world. She has a degree from Princeton University and a master's in Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting from New York University. Justine has battled swarms of mosquitos, steep trails, and the wilds of the Papua New Guinea rainforest — all for a good story. When not writing about conservation science, she enjoys having far-flung adventures, long hikes, and waking up at dawn to bird. More from Justine

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68 comments

  1. What an amazing animal to survive such a calamitous injury AND bullet wounds besides. I assume it was healing as well as possible or he wouldnt have been returned to the wild. (which is where he should be). Every time I read about a wild animal (predators or prey) that survives such a horrible injury and yet, keeps on going – I know – no matter what – they deserve to live their lives free & on their own. And every time I read about the disastrous wild horse roundups in the West – and see the number of horses that are “euthanized” AFTER a roundup – horses that have lived their lives in the wild and SURVIVED – but the BLM in their infinite wisdom decides they must be euthanized (their word – not mine). I apologize if this is not considered a subject for this particular discussion – it is, however, a very important one to me. You spoke about the damage done in Mongolia: “That resulted in overgrazing, land degradation and desertification, struggles between herders for grazing areas, and conflicts between livestock and wild animals,” Certainly sounds a lot like the problem in our Western US. I know there is still an ongoing argument regarding the wildness of the wild horses. But there also has been much more research done & answers found regarding exactly how long they have been here!

  2. up. Wonderful work, keep it. Snow Leopards are among the very special species and need to be saved from extinction. (this is just my opinion.)

  3. Just reading this article makes me feel such empathy and love for Shuurga and other injured and endangered animals. Ditto the thanks for an amazing story.

  4. You released him back to the wild without a leg? Without treatment?

    1. Thanks for your comment… please see a reply from Eddie Game further down in the thread.

  5. So now what happens to him? Won’t the wound get horribly infected?

    1. They collard him so they can write about it when they find him dead!

    2. Thanks for your comment… please see a reply from Eddie Game further down in the thread.

  6. Keep up the good work.

    I hope that Shuurga will survive, along with other members of this beautiful, wonderful species.

  7. Oh I wish this leopard could be caught and taken to a sanctuary. I really gear for his life. Is this possible?

    1. Hi Jacqui, thanks for your comment… please see a reply from Eddie Game further down in the thread.

  8. Very interesting article. When this injured snow leopard was sedated, couldn’t his limb be cleaned, sewned up and given antibiotics against infection?? Nothing was said about this. I hope he is OK and can live without his fourth leg. It definitely will be hard for him to run and catch prey to feed himself in that condition. Perhaps the biologists should provide him with food from time to time to sustain him.

    1. Hi Cindy, thanks for your comment… please see a reply from Eddie Game further down in the thread.

  9. The best option – humanity goes vegan and there is no manufactured conflict between the unfortunate souls that are deemed, “livestock”, and the equally mistreated predators.

  10. My initial reaction to Shuurga’s leg trauma is wondering how he could survive, why didn’t the leg become infected and then progress to become life threatening. Does if have anything to do with the particular climate in that area of Mongolia?

  11. Won’t Shurga eventually decline and die with an inability to hunt? Why wasn’t this addressed in the article? I just don’t see how this animal can continue like this.

    1. Hi Brian, thanks for your comment… please see a reply from Eddie Game further down in the thread.

  12. Why wasn’t his “still bloody and ragged” wound treated before returning him to his environment? Doesn’t seem very humane.

    1. Hi Roberta, thanks for your comment… please see a reply from Eddie Game further down in the thread.

  13. I was amazed how much I learned from your letter and the video. Please keep them coming as I share what I have learned. Thank you!

  14. RE: Shuurga- Injured Snow Leopard
    He was caught with one leg GONE and the stump still bloody. He was fitted with a new sattelite collar..but no mention of any treatment for his severe wound…and then released to “Hunt” for himself??…kind of cruel..no??
    How is he going to survive with such a severe wound?

    1. Hi John, thanks for your comment… please see a reply from Eddie Game further down in the thread.

  15. Great story
    I finished reading “American Wolf” recently & learned about tagging & following the wolf & elk population in an effort to save wolves & reduce loss by hunters & ranchers. I am so happy to read that there is a similar program for these amazing snow leopards, who need to be preserved. Cooperation with humans is essential with dwindling habitat! Thank you for the terrific reporting.

  16. Makes me sad that humans, regardless of their excuses, kill our wildlife so recklessly and without remorse. Knowing that these beautiful creatures are on the verge of extinction. It’s a shame our wildlife has been displaced by humans and building growth – they have less and less space to live and hunt as God had intended. Now they fear daily for their lives and the lives of their family – God willing they have them.

  17. So has the three legged snow leopard survived? Can he feed and fend for himself?

  18. Because this leopard is handicapped why don’t you let him spend his remaining years in the comfort and safety of a good zoo?

  19. In this day and age of “tiny” electronics why can we not find something smaller to put on the wild animals. I am sure it is very uncomfortable for them with simply a collar much less one with a large electronic tracking device.

  20. Humans are a sorry excuse of a species, and yes I am one of them. We think we’re better than all other animals, but we’re not, we’re much, much worse. Reading this sad story about this magnificent animal made me cry for him. He SHOULDN’T have to suffer because of our stupidity. No animal should. Also, what exactly did these people do to ease his pain, make sure the wound didn’t get infected, etc. All they did was collar him? Hmmm, not thinking very highly of them.

    I read Maggie Frazier’s comments, and I agree with her 100% about our precious wild horses. Not only our precious wild horses, but the WOLVES, BEARS, BISON, etc., etc., etc. The USDA Wildlife Services is one of the most vile and disgusting federal programs in our nation! They MURDER millions of animals per year primarily to help special interest groups. I thoroughly despise them and what they stand for and should be obliterated. The name for our species should be inhumanity for all the horrors we commit upon other species.

  21. Since Shuurga is “differently abled” (PC for handicapped), how can you generalize information from his hunting habits to a more general population?
    I understand that you probably could not intervene to treat the animal because it would violate the experimental protocol . If that is what happened, I understand but I don’t like it one bit,

  22. Thank you to you and your team for all that you do to save these majestic animals. We must all take a stand to save and protect them by donating, signing petitions and buying your products sold to help defray costs. It makes me really sad what happened to Shuurga and I hope and pray that even though he has been seriously injured he recovers and lives to a ripe old age.

  23. My first thought about this article was, as others posted, was concern about this animal’s wound. Surely he wasn’t let loose with that raw untreated amputation still open! But nothing was said about his treatment. I hope that the poor animal had the wound closed and a shot of antibiotics given.

    1. Hi Jennifer, thanks for your comment… please see a reply from Eddie Game further down in the thread.

  24. Wouldn’t it be better to capture him and retire him to a sanctuary, rather than let him starve?

  25. I want to know if his leg was treated & given antibiotics. Why can’t he go to a sanctuary? You put on a new collar, but didn’t treat his leg? What is the point? He is going to die from infection & maybe starvation. Why wasn’t he given treatment? You call a collar humane but leave his leg torn apart? Where are your priorities?

    1. Hi Janeth, thanks for your comment… please see a reply from Eddie Game further down in the thread.

  26. Conserving and preserving all of the natural species is critical to maintaining the ecological balance of the earth. Man is the main impediment here. I hope that while Shuurga was being fitted with a new collar, his severe injury was treated, the wound closed and at least an strong antibiotic was administered. It is amazing how animals can manage to adapt to an injury and still survive. I also hope that the human herders in Shuurga’s territory accept him and his needs to survive.

  27. Get Shuurga out of there and get him veterinary attention pronto! He can become an animal ambassador for the environmental movement. Looking at that wound I am surprised that he hasn’t bled to death, starved to death, died of sepsis or was eaten by a neighbor! -Regards, Peter J. Brynildsen, M.D.

  28. For more than 50 years I have belonged to special interest groups such as Defenders of Wildlife and The Nature Conservancy to try to do my small part in defending and protecting the flora and fauna that we want so much to save and preserve. It absolutely sickens me that after all this time, after all this money and work, the whole wildlife situation seems worse than ever before. Our government organizations both on the state and federal levels are a sham. Then I read articles like this one about this poor beautiful snow leopard suffering so much, only to be outfitted with another collar and returned to the wild with his horrific injury and his ability to fend for and defend himself so compromised. I am beginning to wonder just what in the world is going on? Is there no way that science and compassion can be found in the same situation?

    1. Hi, I completely understand and share your feeling. I am sick of these environmental groups who do nothing but continue their useless research year after year. WWF was studying snow leopard in the eighties and nineties. What they managed to get was worldwide fame for their good work! But nothing came out of all their studies except recording the big cat’s diminishing territory and population.

  29. so happy that shuurga`s doing well after you folks standing in to help…they are beautiful cats!! good luck to her and the others …keep up the good work that you all do for the animals, and people you work with.

  30. If he lost a leg – why didn’t they capture him and place him in a rescue home? There is no way he can continue to hunt prey with three legs.

  31. I worry about this snow leopard’s ability to catch his prey without his other front leg. Does it seem like he is healthy and adequately fed? Thank you for your story. I love knowing about wildlife around the world.

  32. the cat with the hurt paw, why didnt someone operate or help this cat????

  33. Let them kill your lousy goats your herd gets bigger and they die because there’s no food out there because you took it all already. Scientists why don’t you release a herd of caribou or reindeer out there for them to eat.

  34. Echoing a lot of comments questioning the wisdom of releasing him into the wild , I add mine. I have trouble imagining him trying to run down a deer or even being able to bring it down if he caught it. This could lead to slow starvation. How will he be able to climb up mountains minus a leg? I think a sanctuary is a better idea.

  35. If the livestock herders are compensated for a loss of one their animals, maybe they won’t try and kill the leopards…How about trying that idea…Also maybe you can convince the government to make the snow leopard their official symbol of their country and banning the hunting or trapping as well….How about someone speaking the government about that?

  36. Looks, like socialism was better for wild life in Mongolia. That’s happened because of the planning nature of the socialism economy. I remember that time, and was always wondering, why the Soviet government took better care of Mongolian wild life rather than our iwn, Far-Eastern. A great example was almost extinct Far Eastern leopard in Primorskiy Kray (Vladivostok ). Now they are doing a great job for restoring the leopards.

  37. Why wasn’t the maimed snow leopard taken into custody to be treated by vet, and then perhaps to a zoo? I seriouly doubt this animal will survive in the wild, as it will not be able to use its speed to run down prey. I’m appalled at the lack of action by the team who tranqulized and collared the animal. For this reason, I would not choose to makea cash donation to The Nature Conservancy.

    1. Hi Kenneth, thanks for your comment… please see a reply from Eddie Game further down in the thread.

  38. Truely love your intelligent work,I mnot an internet lover,but those picture move me,nature is divine.Thanks.

  39. Dera Justine, Great article and story. I wondered if Shuurga’s bloody wounds were treated in any way, or is that too much interference from “man”? Thank you.

    1. Hi Valerie, thanks for your comment… please see a reply from Eddie Game further down in the thread.

  40. these snow leopards are beautiful and deserve their own space. can anything be done to fix that one leopard’s cut off leg so he can live better? there should be no traps…

  41. he should have been removed from the wild, he’ll never survive like this

  42. How can anyone, Mongolian or NOT, kill or trap a beautiful snow leopard-endangered species. I am a BIOLOGIST by training. It breaks my heart to hear how injured this beautiful animal was, by some STUPID HUMAN who set a TRAP & another human, or the same one, who then SHOT the poor CAT. I can’t take living on this planet…I don’t belong here….No one cares…

  43. I read this article and instead of feeling good I feel terrible. What is it with you scientists, are you so in your ivory towers that you have lost all common sense? You found a leopard that has only three legs and very likely not able to catch enough food, with a hoard of killer humans, a.k.a. herders, and just collard the animal and left him to his chances?! I guess next we will read your blog on how the young leopard died of starvation or was shot by an angry human. That is why I get so frustrated with people in ivory towers!

    1. Hi Leila, thanks for your comment… please see a reply from Eddie Game further down in the thread.

  44. I too am curious as to why no treatment was mentioned as being given to this magnificent animal during application of a tracking collar. Anyone reading the report would assume your team has left this injured animal to a slow and painful death it being very handicapped in it’s ability to hunt. Why? Consider a plan to recapture Shuurga and place it in a zoo somewhere for the rest of it’s days perhaps for breeding purposes and public awareness as to the plight it’s kind. To have left that animal loose without an attempt to treat it’s wound if that is in fact what happened needs to be explained to your readers clearly…

    1. Hi Lance, thanks for your comment… please see a reply from Eddie Game further down in the thread.

  45. I would like to know more of what happened to Shuurga, if they helped to heal her stumped leg and if they released her or put her on a reserve or something.

  46. Many of our readers have expressed concern for the injured snow leopard, Shuurga, and asked questions about his well-being and chances of survival. I talked to our scientist, Eddie Game, who passed on the additional information below. We hope this addresses your questions and concerns.

    From Eddie:
    When our research team realized that Shuurga was injured, we did as much as we were legally allowed to do for him. The research team fully cleaned and sutured Shuurga’s leg before releasing him back into the wild.

    It is reasonable to suspect Shuurga will have challenges hunting, but the reality is we simply don’t know how long snow leopards can survive with these types of injuries. I just checked the most recent GPS data and Shuurga is still moving around extensively and has clearly hunted successfully since he was capture last October.

    People have reported seeing similarly trap-injured snow leopards before, but because these leopards are so elusive and live in such remote areas, we rarely ever find them after they’ve died. So, we don’t know how these types of injuries ultimately influence survival. Having a collar on Shuurga will help shed light on this, which may in turn help us work with the Mongolian government of policies and practices for cases like this in future.