TOLEDO, Ohio – It has been said that time spent with cats is never wasted. Toledo Zoo veterinarian and director of animal health and nutrition, Dr. Ric Berlinski would certainly agree. Dr. Berlinski recently returned from his second field experience trip to Kyrgyzstan to study snow leopards with the global wild cat conservation organization, Panthera.
According to Dr. Berlinski, this year the group got down to business almost right away upon arriving at the base camp in the Tien Shen mountain range. A few days into Berlinski’s stay an alarm sounded indicating the presence of captured cat. After trekking through the tough mountain terrain of the Sarychat- Ertash Strict Nature Reserve at approximately 12,000 feet (just below the ice sheet) with air temperatures around 10-12 degrees, the group located and placed a GPS radio collar on a new male snow leopard, known as M2 or Zair. This cat was approximately 2-2 ½ years old and in good physical health. Then on the last day the soft snares were to be set, the alarm sounded again.
This time, Dr. Berlinski estimated the new male, M3 or Star, to be 7-8 years old, noting its fading fur coloring with age. Current estimates for the life span of snow leopards in the wild is 8-11 years. “The group also noted the many battle scars on this male cat. After tracking his movements with the radio collar, our suspicions were confirmed: he is the dominant male in the region and is not afraid to hunt wherever he wants, even in the territories of other snow leopards, and has the scars to prove it. The information collected from the GPS radio collars is helping to fill in the many gaps of what science doesn’t know about snow leopards, including identifying prey kill sites, learning more about feeding frequency, hunting habits and the natural movements of this elusive species,” said Dr. Berlinski.
During the five-and-a-half week trip, Dr. Berlinski and the rest of the three-person research team along with a wildlife photographer, checked the 20+ live traps set by Panthera every day. “In one day my Fitbit documented that I took 31,000 steps and climbed 471 flights of stairs. After talking it over with the group we determined I climbed more than 4,000 vertical feet that day,” chuckled Dr. Berlinski. The trip was not without incident though. Just five days in, Dr. Berlinski slipped on ice while carrying a sledge hammer and suffered a compound fracture of the middle finger on his right hand, which he promptly reset and splinted himself, allowing him to remain on location with the group.
During their time in what Dr. Berlinski calls “the harshest working conditions I’ve ever been in,” the group captured, assessed and placed GPS collars on two new cats. “To have been a part of two new captures in five weeks is absolutely amazing. The more you encounter snow leopards, the more impressive the species and its daily life become.”
While Panthera has collared their permitted limit of snow leopards for 2016, the group has reapplied for permission from the Kyrgyzstan government to continue their research. Dr. Berlinski and his now-veteran team have all already volunteered to return to the former Soviet bloc country. “I am really looking forward to continuing our work. Being one of a very select few who have ever had their hands on a wild snow leopard is such an honor and I couldn’t have these career defining moments without the support of the Toledo Zoo and their commitment to conservation all over the world. Even with the broken finger, this was another absolutely fantastic trip withPanthera,” said Dr. Berlinski.
- The Toledo Zoo