Snow leopards are one of the most elusive cats on Earth. Not only is the species endangered, but it is notoriously shy, and much about where snow leopards live in the wild remains mysterious.
So researchers got a big surprise when a set of 11 camera traps installed in a lonely corner of Tajikistan revealed at least five snow leopards were living in the region, including a mother with two young cubs.
The motion-sensing camera traps were set high in the remote Pamir Mountains.
Science news from NBCNews.com
Over the three-month study period, the cameras snapped pictures of a parade of creatures — mountain ibex, Marco Polo sheep (the largest in the world), a rare mountain weasel, a variety of birds and the family of snow leopards. [See photos of the snow leopards and other animals here.]
"This is the first detailed biodiversity survey of the area, and it's very exciting to see so much diversity," lead scientist David Mallon said in a statement. "But the highlight was confirming the presence of what seems to be a healthy population of breeding snow leopards."
Yet when scientists returned to retrieve their camera traps, they found only 10. One had gone missing.
A close look through the piles of pictures revealed the culprits: the two snow leopard cubs.
A companion camera trap to the stolen rig caught the two young leopards red-pawed.
The IUCN, an independent international body that assesses the status of species around the globe, has listed snow leopards as endangered since at least 1986. The big cats, known for their cloudy gray fur and dark spots, are native to Central Asia's high mountains, and their numbers have been decreasing.
Hard numbers are difficult to establish, but it is estimated that between 4,000 and 6,500 snow leopards are left in the wild.
Despite the fact that researchers found only five cats, they were encouraged by the results of the survey, which was conducted by British-based Fauna & Flora International with the help of U.S.-based big-cat conservation organization, Panthera.
Snow leopards require large swaths of land, and researchers said the region offers a good place to concentrate conservation efforts.
"These survey results demonstrate that there is hope still for the endangered snow leopard," Panthera's Tom McCarthy said in a statement.
The fate of the stolen camera is unknown.
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