New Diseases Threaten Endangered Snow Leopard

A snow leopard in Afghanistan. (USAID via Wikipedia)

(CN) – Exposure to infections threatens the survival of wild snow leopards in the rugged mountains of Central Asia, but the pathogens may also put villages and livestock that come into contact with the elusive cat at risk to illness according to a study published Thursday.

Over time, the snow leopard, or panthera unica, has adapted to the frigid, snowy climates Nepal, Pakistan, Russia and Afghanistan and has carved out a dominant position among wild animals in their barren, alpine homes. But scientists now estimate there are no more than 6,000 in the wild as development shrinks the wild cats’ habitats.

Conflict with animal herders, climate change and threats from poachers are other factors in the cats’ continued decline. Infectious diseases have emerged as a new threat the snow leopard population.

In a study published Thursday in Infection Ecology & Epidemiology, researchers traced antibodies in the blood of the wild cats to dangerous pathogens.

Eight years ago, scientists set out to investigate the unexplained causes of death in four snow leopards in the South Gobi province of Mongolia. They suspected deadly zoonotic pathogens could have played a role, which would pose a threat to the 90 herder families – and their animals – in the area.

With the help of the Snow Leopard Trust and Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation, scientists captured and examined 20 snow leopards between 2008 and 2015, with only one leopard appearing to be healthy and in good physical condition.

Researchers detected several dangerous zoonotic pathogens, including Coxiella burnetii, which can cause fever in humans and livestock; Leptospira, which can spread life-threatening infections to humans; and Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that infects warm-blooded animals and causes flu-like symptoms.

Ticks collected from the snow leopards also contained zoonotic bacteria, the study found.

Carol Esson, the lead author of the study, said in a statement the pathogens could lead to a disease epidemic that is particularly dangerous to other wildlife populations, especially those with dwindling numbers and low genetic diversity.

“Although the zoonotic pathogens identified in this study did not appear to cause illness to the snow leopards in the short term, they have caused illness in other wild cats,” said Esson, who teaches at James Cook University in Australia. “And so, there is now a need to establish surveillance to monitor for potential longer-term disease impacts on this vulnerable population.”

The study’s findings could help researchers identify if and when populations of snow leopards, and other wild animals, will face threats from infectious diseases.

Along with assisting in efforts to conserve the endangered snow leopard, Esson said the findings could also aid scientists working to protect the health of local nomadic communities living alongside the wild cats.

“Raising awareness in local communities about the possibility of illness in their animals and themselves could lead to improvements to herd health, boosting their productivity and income,” Esson said.

Scientists from the National Veterinary Institute in Sweden; the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences; Uppsala University of Sweden; and the University of Liège, Belgium, also contributed to the study.

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