A new synergy between zoos and field projects with an initial focus on cheetah, jaguar and snow leopard.
For our initial focal species, we have chosen the cheetah, jaguar and snow leopard. There are several reasons these species were chosen. One critical factor influencing these choices is the declining free-ranging population and global conservation status of each of these species, which ranges from Near Threatened and Vulnerable to Endangered. In addition, they tend to occupy habitats where the tracking medium might support the collection of numerous tracks from each individual sampled. Finally, each of these species has a dedicated AZA Species Survival Plan (SSP) within a Taxon Advisory Group (TAG), demonstrating the strong commitment that North American zoos have for their conservation and education.
Carnivores are among the most challenging species to monitor in their natural habitat. Cryptic behaviour, low densities, and frequently nocturnal activity patterns are among the common obstacles field survey efforts must overcome to be successful. Although technological advances in sampling approaches, including remote camera trapping, satellite collars and non-invasive genetic sampling, have proven remarkably effective tools for carnivore researchers, these activities are not frequently a central part of government-sponsored, long-term monitoring efforts in many developing nations. High equipment costs, a lack of equipment longevity under difficult field conditions, and/or specialised technical capacity for processing data and samples for analysis, often preclude the implementation of self-reliant carnivore monitoring programs where they are needed most. In contrast alternative non-invasive approaches, such as sign transects, have historically been relegated as scientifically unreliable for monitoring carnivores such as felids, canids, ursids, etc. Track-based approaches have been insufficiently robust regarding the ability to confidently differentiate among the individuals leaving them.
The recent development of FIT, a novel probabilistic, algorithm-based method relying on the natural variation occurring in the footpad morphology of a species, can now identify by species, individual, sex and age-class from footprint. This can facilitate innovative and robust new approaches to track-based population surveys of cryptic carnivores. This has tremendous implications for the development of alternative carnivore population monitoring programs in other countries, programs that are relatively cost-effective and require little to no specialised technical capacity. One goal of the program proposed here is to develop an adequate data reference collection of track morphology and variation for key species in order to be able to furnish the resources needed for such population monitoring efforts. To accomplish this, we are looking to partner with those Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) facilities maintaining one or more individuals of our priority species in their captive collection.