Interview With Snow Leopard Researcher Katey Duffey

Katey speaks with herders in Mongolia. Image courtesy Katey Duffey.
Katey speaks with herders in Mongolia. Image courtesy Katey Duffey.

This is a special post. Instead of being an essay or news article, it is an interview with an active snow leopard researcher: Katey Duffey.

Katey is a graduate of Miami University (Ohio), a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom II, and a scientist. She is currently studying a little-known population of snow leopards in western Mongolia, as well as assessing the cats’ relationships with local herders.

More information about Katey can be found on her excellent blog. She has also written several guest posts, such as the fascinating “In Search of the Mountain Ghost.

Katey graciously agreed to answer some questions about her views and experiences. Here is what she had to say:

Katey Duffey. Image courtesy Katey Duffey.
Katey Duffey. Image courtesy Katey Duffey.

What made you want to become a zoologist?

I always had a fascination for the natural world, and became drawn to studying wildlife by being inspired by TV programs such as The Crocodile Hunter, Corwin’s Quest, Kratt’s Creatures, and Big Cat Diaries. Wildlife documentaries that featured carnivores especially peaked my interest since they are some of the most recognizable, yet misunderstood species. They are held in both high regard and fear by people all over the world. My goal continues to be to further understand these powerful creatures, and to figure out how people can coexist with them.

What poses the greatest risk to snow leopards in your study area?

In my study area, which is primarily in and around Otgontenger SPA in western Mongolia, retaliatory killing and habitat loss seem to be the greatest risks to snow leopards. These two issues are linked. Too many livestock overgraze the land.  The livestock out-competes wild prey species, and push further into snow leopard habitat. As a result, snow leopards kill livestock as easy prey. Herders, who are understandably angry about losing their only source of income, kill the cats.

In your experience, how do attitudes towards carnivores differ in the United States and Mongolia?

In both the U.S and Mongolia, there are people who dislike carnivores, especially those who raise livestock. Many people in the U.S have more of a concern for human or pet safety. Some regions have little tolerance for carnivores even coexisting anywhere near people, due to ignorance of the animal’s behavior and ecology. Ignorance leads to fear. The most common form of management is based from political decisions influenced by the public, which tends to result in carnivore culling. To many people in the U.S (all over the world actually), it just seems easier to focus on a short-term “fix” by killing carnivores, as opposed to a long-term solution that would be both economically and ecologically effective. Long-term solutions requires the behavior of community members to change though. People have to be willing to change some of their behaviors to avoid conflicts.

A snow leopard photographed on a camera trap in Mongolia. Image courtesy Katey Duffey.
A snow leopard photographed on a camera trap in Mongolia. Image courtesy Katey Duffey.

Mongolians are most concerned with protecting their livelihoods. However their culture, being strongly connected to nature since most people there are Buddhist, are more willing to accept predator-friendly livestock husbandry. They understand the value carnivores have to the landscape so would prefer to not have to kill them. Snow leopards are considered very sacred, and there is a belief that killing one would bring bad luck to a herder. If there is a way that the people can live alongside snow leopards and wolves without losing livestock, they will try.

Recently there have been several attempts to forcibly remove wolves from the endangered species list. Given the work you have done with wolves, what is your take on this?

As a biologist/conservationist, the idea of wolves having a population that is high enough to be self-sustaining so that they can finally be removed from federal protection, is great news. The whole reason a species is placed on that list is so that the populations have a chance to recover. The problem arises when decisions are not based on science, but on some sort of political agenda. In certain states, wolves are kept at a minimum population to be off federal protection, but high enough so they can be trophy hunted.

Otgontenger SPA, Katey's study area. Image courtesy Katey Duffey.
Otgontenger SPA, Katey’s study area. Image courtesy Katey Duffey.

You said in your “About” page that you are interested in science communication and citizen science. How do you think these activities could benefit carnivore conservation?

There are so many phenomenal research projects going on but the public is completely unaware. Scientists share their work with other scientists. If more scientists find a way to share what they are doing with a broader audience, more support for future work can be obtained. Policy makers and government agencies often favor the majority attitudes of the public.

Citizen science takes things a step further. It engages the public in research projects, allowing them to feel like they are apart of the effort. Hands on experience helps the public gain a better understanding of scientific research and environmental issues as a whole. It also helps researchers obtain much more data.

Snow leopard by Heidi Schuyt. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Snow leopard by Heidi Schuyt. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Lastly, what can readers of this blog do to support snow leopards?

Organizations such as Snow Leopard Conservancy and Snow Leopard Trust are geared specifically toward the conservation of these endangered cats, and preserving local ways of life. Their websites offer the public a lot of information about the projects they are involved with, as well as a secure source to make donations. There are also items, such as handicrafts made by local people from snow leopard range countries, that can be purchased. The proceeds go right back to the communities as an alternative income from poaching. For those who are unable to donate in some way, educational materials or advice can be offered by these organizations so that people can conduct their own snow leopard outreach in their hometown. Conservation starts with education!



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