Research has shown that apex predators play a vital role in maintaining the balance of nature in the ecosystems they inhabit. The Protecting Peak Predators Program will consist of many distinct projects developed to increase understanding about how various predatory species help to sustain healthy ecosystems around the world.
Why This Matters:
Snow leopards are on the verge of extinction across Asia, wolves were wiped out in Yellowstone National Park for 70 years and today, children are drinking poisoned city water in Flint, Michigan, USA.
These three diverse scenarios are each the product of human beings acting blindly, often with disastrous consequences, because they don't fully understand the interdependence between man, other species, and the natural world as a whole.
Today, most people can see that there is something wrong with pushing snow leopards, or any other species, towards the brink of extinction. Yet all around the world key species remain at risk. This is largely due to the misperception by the people who live near the animals' natural habitats that predators pose a threat to their daily lives and work.
However, when the right people see an urgent need to act positively to protect any key species, truly remarkable things can happen. For example, when wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park in 1995 positive results ensued, as the short video included in our Wondrous Wolves Project illustrates.
When man works intelligently to restore a truly sustainable equilibrium to natural ecosystems, many lessons can be learned. These lessons can be applied to other species and the natural environment as a whole.
Protecting Peak Predators is a program designed to help people gain understanding of the true nature of apex predators and the vital roles they play in sustaining healthy ecosystems.
By learning more about the natural behavior of animals such as leopards and wolves, we learn valuable lessons and gain important insights into the overall balance of nature – directly from nature itself.
This understanding can alleviate fears and help restore harmony in our lives and enrich communities around the world - even in Flint, Michigan.
Wildlife organizations and researchers all around the world have been working on evidence-based projects designed to learn more about apex predators. This research provides information about how the health and equilibrium of natural ecosystems is sustained simply as a result of these animals behaving naturally.
We are excited to collaborate with numerous world-class researchers and organizations and to publish and distribute their findings through this program. We also plan to spark many more relevant research programs in the future.
The People Behind This Program
Ray Murray - Sweden: Process Facilitator
Ray Murray is our Interim Program Director of The Protecting Peak Predators Program.
Protecting Peak Predators is an overarching program under which a growing number of wildlife-focusd projects, such as "The Shy Snow Leopard Project" and "The Wondrous Wolves Project" will be positioned. Each specific project will have its own Director, whose focus is on studying and protecting one or more key predator species in one or more distinct ecosystems.
Ray's focus will be to protect the overall program and the actual projects themselves by ensuring that globally responsible ethics are applied in their development. He will work with all Project Directors to help them run their specific project efficiently and effectively.
Dr. Natalie Schmitt - Australia & North America: Biologist, TV Presenter:
Dr. Natalie Schmitt is our Project Director of "The Shy Snow Leopard Project". In addition to her work as a Scientist, Nat is also a documentary film maker, presenter and actor.
These many talents have allowed her to effectively communicate her experience in the fields of population genetics, Antarctic research and the tracking of rare and elusive species, to mainstream audiences around the world.
She has appeared as a scientific expert in a series for the Discovery Channel, was featured in an adventure series on the Weather Channel, and even played a character in a much loved Australian soap opera.
Natalie was also assistant director on a documentary on the Tasmanian Devil for Storyteller Media and has appeared in countless commercials for Australian television.
"How Wolves Change Rivers" - The above video was produced and distributed by Sustainable Human. It provides a compelling case to support further research into the important roles that wolves play in balancing healthy ecosystems. This video provides an example of the type of engaging, educational content that will be included in The Wondrous Wolves Project.
Areas of Focus:
1] Exploring the key roles that wolves play in sustaining the ecosystems they inhabit around the world.
2] Understanding the true nature and distinct behaviors of different species of wolves around the world.
Wolves, as an apex predator, provide wildlife researchers with a solid study into how natural ecosystems truly function.
This wondrous animal has been the subject of folklore, fear, and controversy throughout human history and around the world.
Misunderstandings have given rise to problems and unanswered questions about wolf behavior.
This, in turn, has lead to numerous scientific studies being carried out and to a wide range of organizations having been set up to protect the wolf.
Most recently, for example, much has been published and shared about the re-introduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park after an absence of over 70 years, and the positive impact this had on the ecosystem (see video above: “How Wolves Change Rivers”). That short video speaks volumes about how much we have recently learned, and how much there is still to learn, about the delicate balance of Nature.
The Wondrous Wolves Project continues in this same spirit. We are excited to collaborate with the researchers and organizations around the world whose work is designed to answer important questions about these beautiful and vitally important animals.
To develop a revolutionary new technology, a genetic field-test-kit, which may be used by experts and non-experts alike to rapidly identify rare, elusive and endangered species DNA in the field.
Dr. Natalie Schmitt is excited to announce and launch her latest project that will ultimately benefit wildlife conservation programs and endangered species all around the world.
Her aim is to revolutionize our ability to rapidly identify endangered species by determining the DNA contained within specimens left behind by animals in the field – such as hair samples or fecal matter.
The Shy Snow Leopard Project focuses on adapting current genetic methodology into a portable, inexpensive field genetic tool-kit that can be used for species identification by non-specialists.
The potential applications of this tool-kit are vast and highly significant.
One of the biggest challenges for wildlife conservationists is that many rare and shy species are seldom seen in the field. Their presence, however, can be confirmed from locating and identifying their droppings.
Monitoring the presence or absence of fecal material can help identify population declines and threats of local extinction, as well as assess the effectiveness of conservation actions or the outcome of re-introduction programs.
Yet another challenge is that current methods of fecal analysis are complex, time consuming and expensive.
This project will develop, test and refine an alternative method by using the tool-kit to track snow leopards and tigers as the research model.
The ultimate goal will be to cover many more species and applications.
“In biological terms, a ‘rare’ animal is one that is in low abundance or restricted geographical distribution or both, whereas an ‘elusive’ animal refers to one that has a low probability of detection,” explains Dr. Schmitt.
“As a conservation geneticist, documentary film maker and presenter I’ve always had a deep fascination with these mysterious and intriguing animals, particularly apex predators, as they offer insight into the health and wellbeing of our planet’s ecosystems,” she states.
Dr. Schmitt further emphasizes that these ‘keystone species’ play a critical role in maintaining the structure of an ecological community, affecting many other organisms and helping to determine the types and numbers of various other species within the community.
“Without them, an ecosystem can collapse,” she warns, “These species however, prove tremendously challenging to study and it has taken science many years of visionary development to enable us to begin to understand and monitor these important animals.”
Feces and other animal remains are often misidentified in the field, leading to presumed species presence in an area where it does not occur, thereby wasting limited conservation resources. For example, research has indicated that even experienced researchers mistakenly identify fox feces as snow leopards' more than 50% of the time.
(Janecka et al. 2008; pers comms, Dibesh Karmacharya, Centre for Molecular Dynamics, Kathmandu (CMDN)).
Using the snow leopard and tiger as a model, the project aims to create a field kit that will easily and effectively identify species from fecal and other samples rapidly and without the need for expensive sequencing equipment.
Long Term Vision:
Dr. Schmitt’s long term vision is to leverage further funding to develop the product for other species of interest and wider applications, to create training tools such as online resources, a translatable manual for education on the kit, explore the viability of the kit in community conservation and ecotourism, and, given the kits will be designed to work with any type of DNA, use the product to assist in monitoring the illegal wildlife trade.
A generous Sabin Snow Leopard Grant from Panthera has provided the funding for Year One laboratory development phase. Dr. Schmitt is excited for this opportunity to work with Dr. Tom McCarthy and the amazing snow leopard team at the Panthera organization.
The Year One laboratory phase will be conducted in collaboration with the Department of Biochemistry and Biomedical Sciences at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario Canada. This research will also be made possible by working with The Toronto Zoo who will provide DNA samples from their resident snow leopards.
The second year will continue such collaboration but will primarily focus on field validation in Nepal and refining the kit into a user-friendly form with the help of engineers from McMaster University.
Centre for Molecular Dynamics, Kathmandu (CMDN) who are involved in the study of snow leopards and tigers in Nepal are partners in the project and will be closely involved with the collection of samples in the field and with amplification of species-specific sequences in the laboratory.
Capacity building of the CMDN team in Nepal is an integral part of the project.
Invitations & Endorsements
Dear Dr. Natalie Schmitt,
Greetings from the Center for Molecular Dynamics Nepal! We are very excited about the possibility of having a DNA based field test platform to do species identification of various biodiversity samples. This type of testing platform will help us tremendously with our endangered species research, particularly on elusive species like snow leopards and tigers. We would be very happy to work with you in testing and validating the platform you are developing on non-invasive samples, such as scat (feces) to help identify species of our study interest.
Executive Director / Chairman: Center for Molecular Dynamics Nepal (CMDN), Kathmandu, NEPAL
To Whom It May Concern:
We are proud to support this important initiative and the work of Dr. Natalie Schmitt. There may be as few as 3500 snow leopards remaining in the wild and many of these are found across the Himalaya. The AHF is working to protect this endangered species through partnerships with local communities but also through partnerships such as these. The work of Dr. Schmitt is critical to the survival of the snow leopard and we fully endorse this important research.
General Manager: Australian Himalayan Foundation
Highland 2 The Highlands (H2TH) is a project designed to engage the general public in actively appreciating and participating in wildlife conservation. The project is based in Highland Township, Michigan and will connect Highland State Recreation Area / National Natural Landmark with the true Highlands of Scotland. By using the latest in digital media, smart phone technology, and social networks, people can explore and discover the natural beauty of Highland Rec Area and compare it to the "Re-Wilding" efforts currently taking place in the Scottish Highlands.
H2TH will focus primarily on building experiential learning opportunities for middle and high school students in Southeast Michigan, and connect them with kids their same age in Scotland. However, it will also be designed to engage people of all ages in the general public to participate in fun and exciting ways through interactive games, contests and other fun activities. Learning activities will have a "Citizen Scientist" component that can potentially add valuable data to support wildlife conservation in Highland Rec.
Participants will be encouraged to learn about the importance of healthy, balanced ecosystems and the wildlife within them. Creativity and media arts will be a very important part of the project through amateur wildlife photography and video productions that can be shared through social media. Therefore, H2TH will include mentors and role models of professional wildlife photographers and artists as well as scientists and researchers from both sides of the pond.
This project will benefit communities in both Southeast Michigan as well as the Scottish Highlands by raising awareness of the vital importance of preserving nature and protecting wildlife for future generations to come.
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