SHANGHAI, China – Chinese researchers have photographed elusive snow leopards using cameras installed on a remote mountain, catching the first clear sightings after a year of tracking the endangered big cats, a report said Friday.
The shots were taken Oct. 18-Dec. 27 in a river valley near Mount Tomur, a 24,535-foot peak in the Tianshan mountains in northwestern China's Xinjiang region, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. It said five different cats were visible in the 32 clear shots the researchers were able to gather.
"This is an encouraging achievement for Chinese scientists after one year spent tracking the snow leopards in their wilderness," Xinhua quoted Ma Ming, a researcher with the Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography, as saying.
The snow leopard lives in high mountains and plateaus scattered across China, Afghanistan, India and Nepal. The number surviving in the wild is estimated at 3,500-7,000, more than half of which are thought to be in western China.
Ma said the sightings suggest the number of snow leopards in Xinjiang may be higher than expected.
The report said the cameras, which are triggered by animals' body heat, also captured shots of ibexes, wild boars and chukars, a kind of bird — all potential prey for snow leopards.
The researchers, whose institute is affiliated with the government's China Academy of Sciences, are conducting the country's first comprehensive survey of wild snow leopards, a project partly funded by the World Wildlife Fund, the report said.
A parallel study using infrared cameras was conducted nearby in neighboring Kyrghyzstan, according to a report by the Snow Leopard Trust, a conservation group based in Seattle, Washington.
The study is also focusing on poaching and trade in snow leopard products. Skins of the animal, which are a smoky-gray with dark gray spots, can sell for more than $1,200 — a small fortune for people living in remote rural areas.