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First spatially-explicit density estimate for a snow leopard population in the Altai Mountains

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The snow leopard Panthera uncia is an elusive and globally-threatened apex predator occurring in the mountain ranges of central Asia. As with other large carnivores, gaps in data on its distribution and abundance still persist. Moreover, available density estimates are often based on inadequate sampling designs or analytical approaches. Here, we used camera trapping across a vast mountainous area (area of the sampling frame 850 km2; analysed habitat extent 2600 km2) and spatially-explicit capture-recapture (SECR) models to provide, to our knowledge, the first robust snow leopard population density estimate for the Altai Mountains. This region is considered one of the most important conservation areas for snow leopards, representing a vast portion of suitable habitat and a key ecological corridor. We also provide estimates of the scale parameter (σ) that reflects ranging behaviour (activity range) and baseline encounter probability, and investigated potential drivers of density and related parameters by assessing their associations with anthropogenic and environmental factors. Sampling yielded 9729 images of snow leopards corresponding to 224 independent detections that belonged to a minimum of 23 identified adult individuals. SECR analysis resulted in an overall density of 1.31 individuals/100 km2 (1.15%–1.50 95% CI), which was positively correlated with terrain slope. This estimate falls within the mid-values of the range of density estimates for the species globally. We estimated significantly different activity range size for females and males (79 and 329 km2, respectively). Baseline encounter probability was negatively associated with anthropogenic activity. Our study contributes to on-going efforts to produce robust global estimates of population abundance for this top carnivore.

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We are grateful to two anonymous reviewers for constructive comments on the manuscript. We are grateful to the Ministry of Environment and Tourism of Mongolia for research permits and support, and to C. Janchivlamdan of Wildlife Initiative for logistic support. We also thank the following colleagues, field assistants, translators and rangers for invaluable help during the fieldwork: R. Rizzoli, P. Zorer, B. Barsuren, B. Munkh-Erdene, T. Yondonjamts, H. Baymanday and J. Khuantkan. We are grateful to S. Palmarini and R. Rizzoli also for their help with photo processing and/or snow leopard identifications. We thank P. Christie and F. Zimmermann for support to the project and lending a portion of camera traps. M. Efford kindly provided statistical advice.


This research was supported by Panthera Sabin Snow Leopard grants, Arca Foundation—Parco Natura Viva, Wildlife Initiative, Irbis Mongolia and the Altai institute for research and conservation. The Gino Zobele Fund supported V.O., the Herbette Foundation from the University of Lausanne supported C.A., and M.K. was supported by the Slovenian Research Agency (grants P4-0059 and N1-0163).

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Authors and Affiliations



FR, CA, VO, ST and CG designed the study. MK, CG, VO and FR collected the data. VO and ST analysed the data. VO led the writing of the manuscript to which all authors contributed critically and gave final approval for publication.

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Correspondence to Francesco Rovero.

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Communicated by Grzegorz Mikusinski.

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Appendix A

See Table 3.

Table 3 Number of encounters and number of sites for each snow leopard individual detected by camera traps in Sutai mountain massif, Mongolian Altai. NA indicates individuals for which sex could not be determined

Appendix B

See Table 4.

Table 4 Maximum likelihood estimates for snow leopards detected by camera trapping in the Sutai mountain massif, Mongolian Altai

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Oberosler, V., Tenan, S., Groff, C. et al. First spatially-explicit density estimate for a snow leopard population in the Altai Mountains. Biodivers Conserv 31, 261–275 (2022).

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