Wildlife & Biodiversity

Study finds pathogens in wild snow leopards

Conducted in Mongolia, the research detected pathogens which, though they did not cause illness to the leopards, could make other wild cats ill; they could also affect humans and livestock

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Friday 07 June 2019
A snow leopard

A new study has detected zoonotic pathogens in the blood of wild snow leopards, something that is of grave concern to those working for the conservation of the rare feline.

As part of the study, an international team of researchers captured and immobilised 20 snow leopards, all of whom except one appeared to be in a healthy condition. This was carried out between 2008 and 2015, and the scientists belonged to conservation groups including the Snow Leopard Trust and Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation.

The researchers found several zoonotic pathogens in the blood samples of the animals. These include Coxiella burnetii, which causes a disease known as Q fever in humans. It can also infect livestock.

They also detected pathogens from the Leptospira species, which can be easily transmitted to humans and cause life-threatening infections. Another pathogen detected was the Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that can infect all warm-blooded animals and cause toxoplasmosis.

The scientists also found a lot of ticks in the fur of the leopards, all of which contained many other types of potentially zoonotic bacteria.

Snow leopards (Panthera uncia), with a population of just 4,000 in the wild, are a highly vulnerable feline species. They are found in a number of countries across Asia, stretching from the heart of the continent to the Indian Subcontinent.

They are threatened by poaching, habitat loss, conflict with pastoralists and climate change. With the discovery of deadly pathogens in their blood, the list of dangers and threats has now grown.

The researchers have said that surveillance would now have to be done to constantly monitor the health of wild snow leopards.

Is the threat from disease to snow leopards real or exaggerated then? Also, what could it mean for India, which is one of the countries with a resident population of snow leopards?

"There is almost no information on which diseases affect snow leopards or how common they are. Therefore, it is impossible to say how big the threat is or how it may affect populations," Örjan Johansson from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and co-author of the study told Down To Earth.

Johansson compared the snow leopard with other big cats. "Other cat species have been severely affected by disease outbreaks where the most cited example is the canine distemper virus outbreak among lions in Tanzania's Serengeti. About 30 per cent of the lion population died in the outbreak. The most likely source of the disease were guard dogs," he said. 

"There are lots of dogs, an increasing number of them feral in snow leopard range. Snow leopards are likely very susceptible to new pathogens because they live in dry and cold areas with low microbial activity and diversity. Sadly, we know very little about the potential threat from disease to snow leopards, but we have at least begun collecting information," Johansson, who is also a member of the Snow Leopard Trust, added. 

The results of the study were published in the journal Infection Ecology & Epidemiology.

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