June 6 (UPI) -- Several infections are posing a threat to the wild snow leopard population, along with people and other animals surrounding their habitat, new research shows.
Researchers identified antibodies from pathogens in the blood of wild snow leopards they say could pose a threat to the species, according to a study published Thursday in Infection Ecology & Epidemiology.
"A disease epidemic could be devastating to wild snow leopards due to their low numbers and many other threats to their existence," Carol Esson, a researcher at James Cook University in Australia and study lead author, said in a news release.
The death of four snow leopards due to unexplained causes in the South Gobi Province of Mongolia in 2011 led to this current study on the impact of zoonotic pathogens on animal conservation.
When researchers studied 20 snow leopards between 2008 and 2015, they detected zoonotic pathogens in the antibodies of their blood samples.
Focusing on disease-causing pathogens that pass between species, the researchers found several pathogens that can transmit to humans, such as Coxiella burnetii, which can also bring on Q fever in livestock; Leptospira species, which can transfer to people and develop into potentially life-threatening infections; and Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that can cause toxoplasmosis.
"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," Esson said. "And so, there is now a need to establish surveillance to monitor for potential longer-term disease impacts on this vulnerable population."
The current snow leopard population stands at 4,000. But threats such as habitat loss, the effects of climate change, conflict with herders and poaching in their native mountain area in Central Asia could also contribute to pulling down that number.
"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.