Noninvasive Genetic Surveys of Snow Leopard Populations


snow leopard scrape with accompanying scat

Photograph of scat (white color, lower left corner) next to a fresh snow leopard scrape (center). Snow leopards scrape the soil with their hind paws and deposit scats in predictable places, making the collection of scats effective for sampling populations.  Photo: J. Janecka

The Snow Leopard Conservancy and Duquesne University associate Dr. Jan Janecka are playing a pioneering role in a new non-invasive technique based on genetics. We believe this powerful technique will prove extremely helpful in answering the question of how many snow leopards reside within a particular area, and which are the best corridors for conservationists to target to ensure that snow endure over the long-term.

The status and distribution of snow leopards are unknown in many parts of Central Asia. Likewise, information on the genetic diversity and population structure of this cat is not available. Yet these issues are critical for developing effective conservation initiatives and assessing the long-term success of various programs designed to protect snow leopards. Because snow leopards are difficult to capture, one of the most effective techniques for sampling their wild populations is by collecting feces (scat). When this is combined with genetic analysis, much information on their populations can be obtained. This approach is referred to as noninvasive genetics.

meeting with local people

Local residents help to select study sites and may also participate in surveys.
Photo: H. Duo

We have conducted noninvasive scat surveys of snow leopards in several regions of China, Mongolia, Pakistan and Tajikistan. Our pilot surveys have been described in Janecka et al. (2008a,b). We work closely with local biologists, herders, and residents, whose collaboration is essential for the success of the surveys. Scats are collected in areas where local people have observed snow leopards, and there is recent sign. We have found that there may be significant misidentification of snow leopard scats in the field, even by experienced biologists. Therefore, training in sign identification and recording is important for minimizing the amount of non-snow leopard scat collected.

Depending on the ruggedness of the terrain and the altitude, 3–7 km of wildlife trails can be surveyed by one team in a day. The techniques used for collecting scats are described in DNA Sampling Protocol-Scat (see also Data Codes and Definitions, and Scat Sample Data Form) and Scat Genetics Survey Methodology for Snow Leopards, which are based on results from our field surveys. We also work with collaborators who are collecting scats in other countries including India (Rinchen Wangchuck, Jigmet Dadul and Tashi Thundup), Kyrgyzstan (Thorsten Harder), Pakistan (Shafqat Hussain, Ghulam Mohammad, Mohammad Bilal), Russia (Mikhail Paltsyn), Tajikistan (Abdusattor Saidov, Stefan Michel and Akhmet Umetbekov), and Bhutan (Sonam Wangyel Wang).

wildlife biologists collecting scat

Dr. Zhang Yuquang and Dr. Jan Janecka collecting snow leopard scat in Qinghai, China.
Photo: H. Duo

Models are used to estimate population size in each study area using several methods. These estimates are based on the total number of individuals genetically “observed” among scats collected in an area, and the number of times each individual is “observed” in the dataset. Many variables affect the accuracy of these population estimates, and one part of our research seeks to identify the most time and cost effective techniques. In order to compare abundance across regions it is also important that different researchers use similar protocols.Back in the genetics laboratory, we use molecular markers for species, individual, and sex identification at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and at the Laboratory of Forest Ecology and Environment of State Forestry Administration, Chinese Academy of Forestry in Beijing. We are assisting a Nepalese organization (Center for Molecular Dynamics Nepal) establish a wildlife genetics facility in Kathmandu.

genetic work in the laboratory

DNA is extracted from scats and species, sex, and individual
identification is made using molecular markers.
Photo: Jan Janecka

Using these noninvasive genetic techniques, we are obtaining information on snow leopards in areas where there is little or no data on their distribution or abundance, for example parts of Tibet and Qinghai. As we accumulate samples throughout Central Asia, we have an opportunity to do additional genetic studies that examine connectivity of snow leopard populations between areas, and address other important conservation questions. This information helps us prioritize where scarce resources are best targeted to safeguard snow leopards.

This project is funded by the National Geographic Society, Snow Leopard Conservancy, Duquesne University, and Chinese Academy of Sciences. For information contact: Dr. Jan Janecka ( or Dr. Rodney Jackson (

Principal Investigators

Jan E. Janecka, Duquesne University
Rodney Jackson, Snow Leopard Conservancy
Zhang Yuquang & Li Diqiang, Chinese Academy of Forestry
Bariushaa Munkhtsog, Mongolian Academy of Sciences & Irbis Mongolia


Janecka, J. E., R. Jackson, Y. Zhang, D. Li, B. Munkhtsog, V. Buckley-Beason, and W. J. Murphy. 2008. “Population monitoring of snow leopards using noninvasive collection of scat samples: A pilot study”. Animal Conservation 11: 401-411.
Janecka, J. E., R. Jackson, Y. Zhang, D. Li, B. Munkhtsog, V. Buckley-Beason, and W. J. Murphy. 2008. “Population monitoring of snow leopards using noninvasive genetics”; Cat News 48:7-10.