Snow leopard DNA test uses animal's own poo to solve conservation riddle

Snow leopard DNA test uses animal's own poo to solve conservation riddle

Snow leopard DNA test uses animal's own poo to solve conservation riddle

Updated 14 October 2017, 7:40 AEDT

Strange as it may sound, big cat poo sitting in the high-altitude dust of the Himalayas could be the key to better snow leopard conservation.

There's a saying in Nepal, that it's more difficult to see a snow leopard than it is to see God.

They live in the high mountains, like fluffy clouds hovering close to heaven — their long tails weighted with a fluffy pelt that thickens towards the tip like an elongated apostrophe.

"These animals are very rare, and it's extremely rare to see one in the wild," Australian conservation geneticist Natalie Schmitt says."

But now cat poo sitting in the high-altitude dust of the Himalayas might provide a solution to a conservation riddle for the whole species.

A population under pressure

Dr Schmitt dabbled in television presenting and started her research career studying whales, but now her focus is big cat poo, and she's just completed a research trip to Lower Mustang in Nepal.

To reach the snow leopards — or to any evidence of them — it can take a day or more of climbing directly up.

"It's kind of like being on a different planet," she says.

"It's like being on the surface of the moon … like nothing else you've ever experienced before. It's such a barren, desolate, but extremely beautiful environment."

Snow leopards are found throughout a 2 million square kilometre section of the Himalayas, stretching across 12 nations.

But despite the isolation and altitude, the species is under threat.

There's an illegal trade in snow leopard parts.

And humans also hunt the leopards' prey — and are encroaching on the habitat of the prey — which makes dinner harder for the feline to find.

As a result, snow leopards turn to hunting agricultural animals, which can lead to illegal revenge killings by farmers.

On top of this, there is evidence that the common leopard is now invading the snow leopards' territory, due in part to the destruction of its own habitat, and the rising snow line caused by global warning.

Despite this list of woes, it's actually unclear whether the total snow leopard population is going down or up.

Snow leopards are elusive and the terrain they inhabit is extremely difficult to traverse, so they are hard to survey for.

Population estimates vary wildly. One source says there is somewhere between 4,500 and 7,500 individuals, while other sources say it's between 2,500 to 10,000.

But without sturdy knowledge of how many there are, it's nearly impossible to make correct conservation decisions.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature has just downgraded the snow leopards' listing from endangered to vulnerable.

The move has brought condemnation from conservation groups, including the Snow Leopard Trust, which says "more robust science is needed to ensure an accurate assessment before revising the status".

That's where Dr Schmitt hopes to make a difference — with the help of the snow leopards' poo.

It's not just about finding poo, it's about finding the right poo

One way to study species that are shy or elusive is to examine what they leave behind — their scat.

It seems almost blasphemous to think of a majestic fluffball like the snow leopard squatting on a mountain ridge, but their very smelly poo might be a key to better conservation.

Scats can be used to give population estimates and even to track individuals across a landscape, because you can get a DNA sample of the animal that left them.

But identifying snow leopard scats isn't easy.

"Talking to a few research groups in countries like Nepal and India — more than 50 per cent of the time they get the species wrong," Dr Schmitt says.

"They're confusing the scat samples with common leopards … but there are also wolves in the area and foxes and domestic dogs.

"They'll collect the scat samples, which takes a lot of effort, and they'll use traditional methods to identify the species that produced that scat sample [back in the lab], and more often than not, they'll get that wrong."

It's an expensive and time-consuming process to accidentally bring wolf poo back instead of snow leopard scat.

But Dr Schmitt, funded in part by New York based big cat NGO Panthera, is working with a biomedical laboratory at McMaster University in Canada to develop a solution.

It's a paper-based DNA test that will flag in the field whether the scat is a snow leopard poo or not — saving a lot of time and energy.

It's a bit like a pregnancy test. You apply a little sample of animal material (in this case, scat), and the paper changes colour if the DNA you're looking for is present.

Dr Schmitt believes in the idea so much she's taken a leap of faith, and is now crowdfunding the research — and her livelihood.

"There are restrictions to your ability to really make a project work in university and government environments," she says.

"I wanted to take the risk and go it alone … this is such a labour of love for me.

"I've been willing to sacrifice pretty much everything. I'm currently homeless. I'm barely making a living. There's just so much uncertainty surrounding my life at the moment."

But Dr Schmitt remains positive about the test.

She says the snow leopard DNA test kit is a proof of concept.

And she believes it could have broader applications for customs authorities, and for the study and preservation of elusive, rare and endangered animals across the world.

"I can't go back now, I have to keep going forward and see this thing through."