Endangered DNA

Written by Simon Mustoe

Snow Leopards are rarely seen big cats that live in mountainous areas of the Himalayas. 

Once considered mythical and protected by folklore and taboo, cultural change, growing human population and maybe even climate change, bring Snow Leopards into ever more conflict with people. The species’ future is increasingly threatened by pressure from hunting (mostly to protect livestock) and the illegal wildlife trade. 


              The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.” - Confucius


Conservation of Snow Leopards has always been hampered by the fact they are so elusive. So independent researcher Dr Natalie Schmitt, who graduated studying whale genetics in the Antarctic, is developing a portable paper-based detection kit.

Her work is already on the way to transforming the way we monitor species and will have huge benefit for conservation world-wide.  

Imagine a paper-based ‘litmus test’ that costs as little as a dollar and can be used by vilagers in remote and poor communities. It works by detecting traces of DNA and turning from white to a greenish colour. Imagine how this information can be used by villagers to understand how to live alongside endangered Snow Leopards. 

The technology was first developed by a biomedical lab in Canada to detect bacteria and other pathogens in food and water. 

Now, thanks to Natalie and a grant from big cat conservation organisation Panthera, as well as support from the lab in Canada, Snow Leopard has become the model species for development of this extraordinary new method.

While it sounds straightforward enough, Natalie has already been working for many months on a proof of concept. “Behind the process is an incredibly complex biochemistry”, she says. 

Just recently though, the first break-through came, when Natalie revealed “we actually linked the recognition of snow leopard DNA on paper with a colour response!”

This incredible result is a world-first and just the first phase in creating a portable, inexpensive but accurate field genetic biosensor that can be used for near instantaneous species identification by non-specialists.  

The potential applications though, are vast. They include providing border and customs agencies worldwide with the ability to identify, on-the-spot, parts of illegally trafficked endangered species such as horn, bone, and skins; and for scientists and non-experts to be able to identify faeces of rare and elusive species for accurate estimates of abundance in the wild. 

We live in an increasingly technological and global society, which has its pros and cons. It’s seen a breakdown of traditions that protected leopards but it has also allowed a new generation to take pride in their natural heritage. “Locals are beginning to understand what Snow Leopards mean to others around the world”, says Natalie, “there’s a newfound pride in the significance of Snow Leopards to their cultural identity globally”.  


Only if we understand, will we care. Only if we care, will we help. Only if we help shall all be saved”- Jane Goodall


Being able to monitor leopards means villagers can build knowledge and empathy with the species. 

With the assistance of the Himalayan Animal Rescue Trust and Kathmandu clothing, Natalie has more recently taken an expedition to learn about Snow Leopard field work in Mustang, Nepal, with the Centre for Molecular Dynamics. 

Here Snow Leopards have been struggling to live side by side with the local villagers for thousands of years and it is through this relationship that the answer to their conservation lies. 

“Having local support is essential because the benefit of my genetic identification tool kit also depends on the capacity of local people to use it and assist in conservation efforts”, says Natalie.

Wildiaries • October 2017