“You may feel their presence, you may see their scrapes, but you seldom get to see them,” says Koustubh Sharma, senior regional ecologist with the Snow Leopard Trust. “That’s the reason why they are called the ghost of the mountains.”

In an effort organized by the Seattle-based trust, along with the Nature Conservation Foundation in Mysore and the State of Himachal Pradesh’s forest department, dozens of remote-sensor cameras set amid the rocky, high-altitude desert of India’s Spiti Valley have captured more than 3,200 images of the elusive and endangered snow leopards (Panthera uncial) across 1,500 square kilometers.

Although researchers hope the photographs help raise awareness of conservation efforts, their goal was more ambitious than to snap pretty pictures: The images amass a significant set of data that Sharma and colleagues are just now beginning to analyze.

They will use the leopards’ unique spot patterns—which are like fingerprints, Sharma says—to distinguish individuals. A mathematical model will be utilized to help estimate the overall population in the Spiti Valley region.

Combined with future work using remote cameras, scat-based DNA analysis and GPS collars, this project could reveal crucial information about how far the snow leopards travel in the area, how they interact within families and how fluctuations in available prey affect the cats. The goal is to measure the effectiveness of conservation measures as well as provide data that could shape new policies in an area where the leopards face a growing and “varied set of threats,” says Ajay Bijoor, research associate with the Snow Leopard Trust.