Listening to and creating voices for conservation

Hi Guys,

Am finally back from a truly inspiring conference in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan for the Society for Conservation Biology in Central Asia, with my talk well received and some really exciting opportunities for collaboration.....boy did I need that! Sometimes its easy to feel like you’re the only one on this path doing it tough, particularly after you’ve been hit with wave after wave of personal and professional challenges. However, many of the people I met here were doing it so tough, that in some instances their lives are threatened simply by choosing to be a conservation scientist, or their funding is so limited that they’re barely able to survive themselves…..I feel so humbled by the bravery and dedication of such people to be willing to sacrifice so much to help those most vulnerable inhabitants of this planet.

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One such inspirational person was Tanya Rosen, director of the Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan snow leopard programs for Panthera. Already impressive with a Masters of Science degree in Social Ecology from Yale University, a Master of Laws from Harvard University and a Juris Doctor from Italy’s Universita Statale di Milano, she has been instrumental in the development of community conservation programs in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan over the past 6 years which have had positive, measurable impacts on snow leopard numbers in the region.

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I was lucky enough to have had the opportunity to visit one of the community-based conservancies in Chong-Kemin, Kyrgyzstan she helped establish, that brings local people together to protect wildlife and allows tourists the opportunity to experience true conservation in action in one of the most spectacularly beautiful ecosystems in the world…..also considered the snow leopard hotspot of the world.

The most significant impact on snow leopard numbers in the region has come from poaching and retribution killings over livestock depredation. Tanya, along with local NGOs and researchers have aimed to stabilize populations of snow leopard prey species and reduce human-snow leopard conflict through the building of predator-proof corrals, establishing informant networks on illegal wildlife trade among local people within the conservancies, and supporting border and customs authorities…..hopefully with detection devices like what we’re developing!

With the conservancies and working with the local people, its all about “working out compromises”. In remote areas of the Himalayas “…where poverty is widespread and children are undernourished and sometimes don’t survive to adulthood, poaching for food has been a necessity”.

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“But now thanks to the former poachers who have come together here to form a community-based conservancy, as well as hundreds of other former poachers who have established similar conservancies across Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, illegal hunting has almost been eliminated from the areas they manage and patrol. Marco Polo sheep and ibex have multiplied, and with them snow leopards.”

Although controversial and not universally supported amongst big cat conservation organisations, part of the motivation is the prospect of income from trophy hunts of prey species which can help alleviate poverty within communities. The argument for this approach is that the “legal and sustainable hunting of a few Marco Polo sheep a year to achieve this result is preferable to the loss of hundreds of the animals to unchecked poaching”.

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The solution is almost always multi-faceted and involves compromise from all stakeholders that encompass the conservation solution. The sincere hope is that ecotourism will eventually contribute more, which is why Tanya is also helping to develop women’s conservation initiatives. “If women can be empowered by training them as wildlife guides and rangers, their availability may make the idea of wildlife watching excursions in the region more appealing to female tourists.” Or also children’s programs where the “aim is to instil a love of nature and wildlife observation in children who have traditionally seen Marco Polo sheep at most as food and snow leopards as only a threat to their families’ livestock.”

Camera trap surveys, partly manned by community rangers with support from Panthera biologists, have shown that snow leopard numbers have been steadily increasing within the conservancies over the 6 years of community involvement…..so the impact has been swift!

Tanya’s attitude has always been that you cannot save snow leopards without first respecting the people and giving them a voice. Her work and that of others like her has made me realise more and more that science, although important, is but a small component of successful and sustainable conservation efforts. And it was heartening to see at this conference a much greater focus on community conservation initiatives, reflecting a positive, changing attitude where ironically, by putting people first we can more effectively save wildlife.

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I’m hoping we can use the same ideas in Nepal combined with the technology we’re developing in the lab 😊

Many blessings to all of you and thank you again for your continued support.

xNat

Natalie Schmitt
The challenges of being a single, female conservation scientist and finding strength in despair
 Photo Mansa Drasta Bista

Photo Mansa Drasta Bista

Hi Guys,

Its been a long time between posts I know but the last 4 months have been exceptionally challenging. I would never usually think to share the challenges. As scientists we really only want people to see the successes, the wins to get excited over. But I feel it is important to be real.....to show our humanity and vulnerability, particularly when we take that leap of faith and risk everything to pursue something that is hugely difficult but hopefully worthwhile.

Its been an incredibly lonely path....I've missed my family and friends terribly and have been coming to terms with sacrificing my own ability to have a family in the process which has hit me harder than I could ever realise. The constant concern over money to not only fund this project but allow me a quality of life where I don't have to watch every penny, has also been taking its toll....its exhausting applying for endless grants and receiving knock back after knock back. This combined with the challenges of being a female living abroad alone in a town that struggles with mental health issues, drug addiction and homelessness. Two weeks ago I was sexually assaulted while waiting for a bus. It was the tipping point for me.....it pushed me into such a state of despair that I really started to question whether all of this is worth it....

But I've realised that I'm not alone in all of this. The heartbreak I've experienced on this journey is nothing compared to what so many people have suffered because they endeavour to do something good for the planet and for others. They have given me strength and have reminded me that we can't give up when things get too hard.....our planet needs us not to give up! And the incredible support I've received has given me renewed hope where there looked like there was none.

 Photo Dibesh Karmacharya

Photo Dibesh Karmacharya

In positive news, I'm about to head to Kyrgyszstan on Friday to present our work at a special snow leopard symposium. It will be wonderful to finally meet all the inspirational people that have devoted their life to the conservation of this remarkable species! We are also very close to securing funding for the rest of the project.....I dare not breath.....and if so, will have Chemical Engineers and collaborators from the University of Calgary on board, and extending the technology to caribou, grey wolves and white tailed deer.

Thank you to all of you for your continued support....you give me reason to keep going.

xNat

Natalie Schmitt
Snow Leopard tracks confirmed by camera trap in Lower Mustang

Hi Guys,

Am currently in Australia catching up with family and friends, applying for grants and meeting with philanthropists to try and get this DNA detection device developed....the fundraising never stops!

I'm also working with the Pangje Foundation, Panthera, Project Himalaya and the Centre for Molecular Dynamics to develop a series of expeditions; combining tourism, research and social initiatives in north-western Nepal. The goal of these expeditions will be to create a biological and social corridor through this snow leopard hotspot in Nepal, for apex predators to survive. The first step in this plan will be to raise money to build corrals to protect livestock from snow leopards and other predators in some of these remote villages. Livestock is the livelihood of the people in this region, and without compensation from the government they are often forced to kill snow leopards in the area for their own survival. If we're able to help the people first, we can then offer environmental education initiatives on the importance of protecting apex predators, with the hope that they may become stewards for local wildlife. 

The Pangje Foundation are already achieving this in Lower Mustang. They are currently supporting a local youth group in the small village of Thini near Jomsom that is developing sustainable eco tourism initiatives through conservation activities. With the Pangje crew they learn about the science of conservation (using snow leopards as the main educational vehicle) by helping set up camera traps.  What's really great is, on their own accord, these kids have decided to develop eco tourism in ways that support a safe/healthy environment for the snow leopard - and hence all other species in the area. This is what we'd love to achieve in some of the more remote parts of Nepal.....and you can be a direct part of making this happen if you'd love to come along on one or more of these expeditions!!.....watch this space!!!

https://pangje.org/

As sign that we're definitely heading in the right direction with this....you'll never believe what we've discovered!! Last year I went out with the team at the Centre for Molecular Dynamics to look for snow leopard hotspots around parts of Mustang and we discovered some big cat pug marks just outside of Thini that we thought were snow leopard. Brad Clements of Pangje, without knowing this sent me a message exclaiming that the local youth group had caught a snow leopard on camera trap in pretty much the exact same spot!! What an unbelievable and wonderful coincidence!

Am feeling excited and hopeful of what we're creating here with the help of you all. Am so grateful for all of your support!

xNat

 Photo from Pangje Foundation

Photo from Pangje Foundation

 Photo from Pangje Foundation

Photo from Pangje Foundation

 Photo Dibesh Karmacharya

Photo Dibesh Karmacharya

 Photo Natalie Schmitt

Photo Natalie Schmitt

Natalie Schmitt
Zeptomole level DNA detection!

Dear friends,

Deep apologies for the long time between posts. We've been making some big discoveries in the lab, applying for funding that could possibly set us up for the next 3 years and gaining interest from a couple of the big nature networks in the States (more in another post)!

In my last post I mentioned that we were trialing a couple of DNA amplification techniques to help us produce lots and lots of copies of DNA from extremely low quantities of snow leopard DNA....known as branched and hyper-branched rolling circle amplification. I've included a couple of pics of what that looks like below.

 Branched Rolling-circle Amplification (BRCA) produces lots of copies of the DNA you're targeting (like snow leopard)

Branched Rolling-circle Amplification (BRCA) produces lots of copies of the DNA you're targeting (like snow leopard)

 Hyper-branched Rolling-circle Amplification (HRCA)- produced even more copies of the DNA you're targeting!

Hyper-branched Rolling-circle Amplification (HRCA)- produced even more copies of the DNA you're targeting!

Frustratingly, it seemed that we weren't able to detect the levels of DNA we would expect with these techniques. But as it turns out, the gel we were using to see the amplified DNA was simply not sensitive enough to detect the low levels arising from the minute quantities we were starting out with. In other words, we were getting our reactions to work from quantities of snow leopard DNA so low that they couldnt be seen on a gel. Only by concentrating the DNA following the reaction were we then able to see this on the gel......and what this tells us has blown my mind!

 Those faint bands you can see above the very dark marker band shows that we are able to produce multiple copies of DNA from very low quantities of target DNA....0.0001 fmol = 100 zeptomoles = 10000 copies of DNA!!! 

Those faint bands you can see above the very dark marker band shows that we are able to produce multiple copies of DNA from very low quantities of target DNA....0.0001 fmol = 100 zeptomoles = 10000 copies of DNA!!! 

What this tells us in a nutshell is that we can detect down to 100 zeptomole of target, or snow leopard DNA which is 10000 copies of DNA! And the even better news is....this is just the start! By optimising the techniques and incorporating awesome nanotechnology that allows us to concentrate the DNA before we even run a reaction, we might be able to detect down to 100 or 10 copies of DNA. To put that into context......to detect snow leopard DNA in a scat sample, our device needs to be capable of detecting down to 10000 or 1000 copies.....with sensitivity like we're predicting, we may be able to detect DNA in water samples! 

As I now head back to Australia for 3 months after 2 years of perpetual winter, I'm feeling excited and optimistic about where this is heading. What started off as an ambitious idea is now turning into reality. And what I love most about it all, is that we're all achieving this together! Together we're creating a device that can hopefully be used in many aspects of conservation monitoring, for experts and non-experts alike.

Thank you for your continual support and belief in this idea!

xNat  

Natalie Schmitt
A month of small downs but with some very big ups!!!

Dear Friends,

Since my last update where we were successfully able to measure the sensitivity of our basic DNA detection test for snow leopards, I've hit a bit of a road block......which is soooo common for this type of research and can actually teach us a lot in the process! For DNA detection we're using a process known as Rolling Circle Amplification (RCA) where a short piece of DNA can be turned into a very long piece of DNA with the addition of a circular template and other DNA growing reagents.

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To make this reaction even more sensitive to low quantities of DNA, we then add another short strand of DNA to the reaction which will bind to the very long strand of DNA we've produced to create lots of branches which should continue to grow exponentially......creating lots and lots of DNA! This is known as branched RCA (BRCA). However, after 2 weeks of trying, BRCA appears to be producing the same amount of DNA as RCA and not a great deal more as we would expect. So now begins the process of finding out why?? This process can be frustrating and time consuming but it can also teach us very valuable information that could prove very useful down the track :) 

 The top bands show the long chain of DNA digested. The bands for BRCA are slightly darker than for RCA only......but they should be soooooooo much darker! :(

The top bands show the long chain of DNA digested. The bands for BRCA are slightly darker than for RCA only......but they should be soooooooo much darker! :(

In more positive news, the Professor and I have decided to try for some very big Canadian funding! We've managed to bring on board a Chemical Engineer, a top Conservation Scientist from Calgary who studies wolves and Caribou, and an industry representative who is keen to use the kit for environmental impact assessments. If we're successful....it will be huge! Not only will it just be me working on it......but a whole team of experts from lots of different fields! I've also been approached by researchers studying Orang Utans, Chimpanzees, Andean Cats, Iberian Lynxs and Dingos who are keen to collaborate.....so this could be bigger than Ben-Hur!!! To add icing to the cake.....I've been contacted by a production company in the US who are interested in promoting yours truly to Nat Geo, Discovery Channel, the BBC etc at a big event in Washington DC and are open to any ideas I might have on a documentary series. Hmmmm....I think taking this kit out into the field with all those cool species could be a great option! This would be a dream come true for me....combining my passion for science with my passion for filming.....but we'll see.

And........we're in the middle of planning the most awesome trek in Nepal in a few years time with a good friend of mine who has been running treks to some of the most remote areas in the region......and I'd love you to come with us. If you decide to come you'll not only have the opportunity to see snow leopard and other incredible wildlife, you'll get to assist me in testing our kit and help build corrals for some of the local villages to protect their precious livestock against carnivore attacks. 

 The "Old Goat" Jamie McGuinness....our guide extraordinaire!

The "Old Goat" Jamie McGuinness....our guide extraordinaire!

I wish you all the joy and love over the holiday season and thank you so much for all your incredible support throughout 2017......without you none of this would have been possible.

xNat 

Natalie Schmitt
Ethical book enticing children about conservation is also giving to conservation this Christmas

Thinking about a gift to give the little ones in your life this Xmas that will teach them about protecting our fragile planet and give to conservation at the same time?

This stunning childrens book created by my incredibly talented friend Deanna Anderson entices conversations about conservation. It has already become a hit amongst kids at schools in Australia and NZ and for a limited time, she is generously donating $10 for every sale towards our project....to create a DNA test kit for the detection of rare and endangered species.

Just go to http://www.kikirofthewalkingtrees.com/ and enter the code: CATSDNA (for Australian residents only)

“Kikir of the Walking Trees’ captures the spirit of hope and determination in every adult and child to care for our precious planet. Thoughtful provoking reading for us all.”

— Lyndsey Jones, Mount Pleasant Primary, Christchurch, New Zealand

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Natalie Schmitt
The human dimension of Big Cat research - Q&A with a Big Cat blogger and closing the gap between snow leopard conservation and people

Hi everyone,

I was recently interviewed by a big cat blogger from the States, Josh Gross, who is an Anthropologist interested in the human dimension of big cat research.

You can read the interview here! : https://thejaguarandallies.com/blog/

I'm especially keen to connect with Anthropologists and Sociologists as the further I delve into conservation research, the more I realise that people and communities are the most important aspect of species and ecosystem preservation. We conservation scientists need to collaborate more with these types of experts as they can help us understand and facilitate solutions to the biggest threat to species biodiversity…..us! With snow leopards, the three major ongoing threats to their survival are 1) competition with livestock, habitat degradation and declines in prey; 2) depredation by snow leopards on livestock and retaliatory killing; and 3) the illegal trade in their parts…..all resulting from human interference. But if humans are the major problem, they must also be the solution!

The Snow Leopard Trust recently released a video on their efforts to help local communities threatened by snow leopards taking their precious livestock, through the introduction of livestock insurance programs. They demonstrate that “sustainable community based conservation is working”. If more funding could be directed towards the human dimension of big cat conservation, empowering and involving local people, most of the battle towards preventing species extinction will have been won.

Watch this space for a trek we’re organising into snow leopard territory in Nepal to raise money to build livestock corrals for some of the villages threatened by snow leopard depredation. Come and be part of the solution!

Many blessings

Natx

High up in the Indian Himalayas, local herders and the Snow Leopard Trust are working together to create a safe future for the endangered snow leopard. One of their innovative ideas: a community-run livestock insurance program that gives herders access to compensation when they lose sheep and goats to snow leopard attacks - and prevents retaliation against the cat.
Natalie Schmitt
Testing the sensitivity of each component of our method – how low can we go in detecting snow leopard DNA?

Dear friends of the project,

Sincere apologies for the lateness of this update. Despite the simplicity of our results, the lab work to get to this stage has many different facets and we’ve been spending time planning the best strategy forward…..and….I really wanted to complete the first milestone before sending this update out!

After the first 6 months in the lab, we were successfully able to create many copies of DNA from a short sequence of snow leopard DNA and link that amplification to a simple colour response using a paper template…..we had proof of concept!

However, we were unable to detect very low concentrations of DNA, just like what may be found in fecal or bone samples. So for the next 6 months our goal is to break down the components of the reaction and test their sensitivity, in other words, what concentrations of DNA are we able to detect?

Once we have this basic information, we can then work on ways to increase the sensitivity to the levels required to detect DNA in the field…..and we have some clever plans in how we might be able to do that!

The most basic component of the reaction, where we create lots of copies of snow leopard DNA, is the rolling circle amplification reaction or RCA. RCA in its simplest form consists of a circular DNA template and a short DNA sequence which is designed to specifically bind to the DNA sequence of snow leopards (primer). When those components bind together in the presence of an enzyme which builds DNA molecules (DNA polymerase), many copies of the circular DNA template are produced to make one big long strand……..with that long strand we can then initiate other reactions which then produce the colour change as in the diagram below.

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So in the last few months we’ve been working to determine the lowest concentration of DNA circle + primer that can produce RCA sequence we can see using a special type of gel.

We knew that the RCA method can be really sensitive to detecting low quantities of DNA but we never knew it could be this sensitive!

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This gel shows that RCA sequence can be produced from about 0.1fmol of primer + circle……that basically means we can detect about 1 million cells…..which is about 1000 times less sensitive than we need it. This is an awesome start because by simply adding a colour response instead of using the gel we could make it 10X more sensitive. And by using more than one primer, we could make the method many times more sensitive again!!!

I hope this hasn’t made your mind explode…..we see this as a very positive and encouraging result, and I once again thank you all for helping us get to this stage.

Without the help of people we can never achieve effective, sustainable conservation.

Blessings to you all.

Natx

Natalie Schmitt
National Radio Interview - The Princely Snow Leopard and its Poo!

Hi Guys,

Before heading back to Canada I was lucky enough to be invited to give a radio interview on ABC Radio National’s “Off Track” program with Dr Ann Jones. She has done an incredible job of weaving the story of this project together, complete with sound effects and all!

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/offtrack/snow-leopard-poo-2018/8852958

You are all now a big part of this story……and after just over a month in the lab, the results are looking very encouraging and we’re now discussing ways we can increase the size of the team (instead of it just being me!). Stay tuned for an update very soon.

Without the help of people we can never achieve effective, sustainable conservation.

Blessings to you all.

Natx

Natalie Schmitt
My thoughts on the Snow Leopard downgrading by the IUCN

Welcome everyone to my first blog for NatsCatsDNA!

I'd love you to explore my new website and let me know what you think! Despite the obvious challenges (working on a shoestring the other side of the world from friends and family) your belief in the project is what keeps me going and will create change in the field of conservation. So thank you again for your support.

Snow Leopard was recently moved from the category of 'Endangered' to 'Vulnerable' by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). A good friend of mine, a wildlife journalist in the States, interviewed me and here's a link to the transcript where I discuss whether this is necessarily a good or bad thing for their conservation:

http://blog.wildlifejournalist.com/2017/09/snow-leopard-de-listing-whats-the-real-story/

Please consider making a donation towards development of the DNA field kit. 

Thank you again for wanting to be a part of this. Without the help of people, effective conservation can never be sustainable.

xNat

  Recently I received news that one of the most mysterious and beautiful creatures on the planet was being taken off the endangered species list. I am talking about the snow leopard. Listing and delisting a species can come with a lot of confusion as subjects like this one deal with everything from extremely difficult  ... read more

Recently I received news that one of the most mysterious and beautiful creatures on the planet was being taken off the endangered species list. I am talking about the snow leopard. Listing and delisting a species can come with a lot of confusion as subjects like this one deal with everything from extremely difficult ... read more

Thank you to my wonderful friend Simon from http://wildiaries.com/ for help building this new website.  

Natalie Schmitt
Snow Leopard DNA linked to a colour response on paper
Snow-Leopard.jpg

A World First

From a first round Sabin Snow Leopard grant from Panthera, we had sufficient funding for an initial proof of concept over 6 months with the Li Lab at McMaster University using fecal samples from captive snow leopards at the Toronto Zoo.

After 6 months of intensive work we are now at the stage where we have been able to successfully create multiple copies of a short sequence of snow leopard DNA on paper using a method known as Rolling Circle Amplification and have been able to link this to a colour response! We have also shown that the system is sensitive to a range of DNA concentrations.

This month (May 2017) I will spend time with field researchers from the Centre for Molecular Dynamics, Nepal as they monitor snow leopards in Upper Mustang. This will be an opportunity for some exploratory work in the field, to understand the conditions influencing the effectiveness of the method and to meet and form a long-term collaboration with the team.

Capacity building of the CMDN team in Nepal will be an integral part of the project.

impactNatalie Schmitt