Mongolia’s Tost Mountains have recently been declared a State Nature Reserve, thanks to a remarkable effort by the local community. Now, it’s up to us all to help ensure that the area’s rich wildlife – including a stable snow leopard population, can thrive in this prime habitat.
Press release, Nordens Ark, Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, Snow Leopard Trust
The Pallas’s cat is a small cat species that lives in the mountains and grasslands of Central Asia, from Iran to China and Mongolia. It’s one of the least studied cats in the world and is currently listed as Near Threatened with a decreasing population by the IUCN red list of endangered species. A large international collaboration has now been initiated in order to make progress with the conservation of the species.
Growing up in Mongolia’s Gobi desert, Tserennadmid (Nadia) Mijiddorj knew from a young age that she wanted to become a snow leopard conservationist. She’s made her dream come true, earning a Masters in biology and joining the Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation – the Mongolia partner of the Snow Leopard Trust – as a Conservation and Education Manager over a decade ago. Now, thanks to her second Sidney Byers Scholarship for Wildlife Conservation through the WCN Scholarship Program, this homegrown conservationist is ready to take the next step in her career.
Through a series of interview and portraits, we would like to shine a light on some of the many conservation heroes who work tirelessly to save the endangered snow leopard. Last month, we kicked things off by featuring an interview with Tanzin Thinley and Kalzang Gurmet, field coordinators in Spiti, India. Now, we’re happy to introduce you to Nadia Mijiddorj!
Nadia, wildlife conservation runs deep in your family. What’s your personal background?
I grew up in small village near the Great Gobi National Park. My childhood was fully attached with Gobi wildlife and nature. My father’s work inspired me and made me realize the beauty of being a wildlife conservationist. It’s always been my dream to work in wildlife conservation with local communities.
When I was a kid, several well know biologists and scientists came to our village to study snow leopards. I learned a lot from them about what an interesting and mysterious character the snow leopard was, and that led to me wanting to know more about this elusive species - especially after I witnessed it in person once.
Please tell us a little more about this experience! When did you first see this elusive cat in the wild?
When I was 6th grade, my classmates and I were traveling to another village to perform at a cultural event. To get there, we had to drive over a mountain range called Dalan. It’s a narrow road between steep cliffs, and only one car can pass at a time. As we were slowly driving up the pass, one boy suddenly started pointing toward the cliff, shouting, “a snow leopard!” Of course, we all craned our necks to try and spot this mysterious animal; and me especially, because I had heard so much about it.
When I finally spotted it, my little heart was beating so fast, and I could almost hear my grandma’s voice, telling me stories about this ‘sacred Ghost of the Mountain’. I will never forget this moment. It lasted only about ten seconds, but I still have this image in my mind of the beautiful mountain ghost looking back over its shoulder one last time before disappearing between the rocks.
You have mentioned the important role local communities play in the conservation of this endangered cat. Why are they so crucial?
I witnessed several incidents in my youth where people in my village did damage to nature and wildlife. I really wanted to oppose them to defend wildlife, but I lacked the education and knowledge to convince them to change.
At the same time, I understand that these communities have a hard life, and can’t always afford to be tolerant towards predators like the snow leopard. But nonetheless, I believe there must be ways for people and wildlife to live together in harmony.
What do you think can be done to find such ways for people and wildlife to coexist?
Knowledge and awareness are critical! They can help build good habits, and help people realize the true value of nature. The benefits communities can draw from ecosystem services – for instance clean air, clean water, food, – are enormous. Once people appreciate that, they’re willing to protect it.
Community-based conservation is our main priority. We have several community based conservation projects across the mountain range of the South Gobi, such as Snow Leopard Enterprises, an award-winning handicraft project; livestock insurance programs to offset predation losses; predator-proof corrals to limit losses of livestock; and eco-camps for children, to raise awareness for nature and conservation.
The eco-camps in particular are a dream come true for me. In 2012, I had the chance to visit our colleagues in India, who’ve run such camps for many years, and to adapt their concept for Mongolia.
In this program, we take local secondary school kids on a five-day camping trip into the mountains, trying to raise their awareness and appreciation for the environment and nature. This hands-on project is much appreciated by local schools, teachers, decision-makers and the public – and especially by the kids. Many of them forge a deep and abiding connection with the natural world in these camps.
The next round of eco-camps in Mongolia is coming up – and you can help make them possible! Find out more here.
You’ve just been awarded your second Sidney Byers Scholarship for Wildlife Conservation through the WCN Scholarship Program. This scholarship will help fund your PhD research. What’s the focus there?
The WCN has encouraged and supported me throughout my academic studies, and has also financially supported my participation in the Emerging Wildlife Conservation Leader program in the US. I can’t express my gratitude to them enough.
My second Sidney Byers Scholarship will allow me to continue with my PhD studies and to work on my dissertation, which will be about understanding perceptions of local mountain herders towards climate change, while investigating its impact on their daily life, routines and livelihoods.
Climate change affects the grasslands and pastures that feed both wild herbivores – the snow leopard’s main prey – and domestic livestock, which is the main source of income for local herders. If grazing practices have to be altered, it can lead to increased competition for scarce resources, and more conflicts between herders’ interests and those of conservationists. And of course it also affects snow leopards, if their prey species get under pressure.
I will attempt to learn more about the effects of climate change on local ecosystems, and make use of data based on perceptions, livestock populations and rangeland experiments to aid snow leopard conservation strategies.
What’s your vision for your future as a conservationist?
Generally, my vision is to empower and enrich conservation awareness among local people in snow leopard habitat and the general public. I’ve learned that educated people have a higher level of tolerance and better capacity of co-existing with wildlife. Therefore, I would like to grow my career focusing on the field of conservation education.
That includes expanding eco-camps for children across all the mountain regions of Mongolia to spread awareness, but it also extends to educating grown-ups. For instance, I would like to educate local people on how shared pastures can be used sustainably in changing climatic conditions. Pastureland is a critically important factor for the livelihoods of nomadic people, and the snow leopard’s prey animals depend on it as well. This WCN grant now allows me to explore this system more.
There is still a lack of awareness, and some of it is our fault. As scientists, we often fail to explain the outcomes of our research and our work to local people in a way that is meaningful to them. I would like to bridge that gap between conservation science and people on the ground!
Nadia Mijiddorj received her first scholarship grant from the WCN in 2008. She is one of three young Snow Leopard Trust researchers to have received the prestigious Sidney Byers Scholarship in the last years, alongside Ranjini Murali from India (2014), and Jaffar Ud Din from Pakistan (2015).
As a former Whitley Award winner, Dr. Charudutt Mishra, the Snow Leopard Trust’s Science & Conservation Director has the privilege of nominating promising young scientists for this honor. “Both the Whitley Fund for Nature and the WCN have been outstanding champions for snow leopard conservation, and have invested heavily into empowering the next generation of grassroots conservationists”, he says.
Mongolian snow leopard researcher Sumbe Tomorsukh has been posthumously awarded the Freeman Family Snow Leopard Conservation Award, one of the most prestigious honors in the field, for his outstanding efforts to save this endangered cat.
With deep sadness, we’ve learned of the death of Lkhagvasumberel (Sumbe) Tomorsukh, Camp Manager and Research Assistant with our Mongolia partner organization, Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation. He was 27 years old.
Below is a tribute to Sumbe, written on behalf of all of us here at the Snow Leopard Trust by his friend and colleague, Dr. Koustubh Sharma.
The Mountain Climbing Machine that went away too soon…
He climbed the mountains like an ibex. He ran on steep slopes where most of us would barely manage to crawl. He cared for snow leopards and ibexes as if they were his own. He helped his colleagues and communities selflessly. He was a young promising researcher who hailed from the water-rich Khuvsgul province, but had taken to the arid Gobi desert as his second home. He was our treasured Mountain Climbing Machine. We had never imagined we would need to use past tense while describing Lkhagvasumberel Tumursukh, fondly known as Sumbe.
Sadly and shockingly, we lost Sumbe last week. Sumbe’s death is currently being investigated. His body was found in the Khuvsgul area last week and the funeral was held at his home earlier this week.
We met Sumbe for the first time in 2009, when he joined our camera trapping team as a student intern in the South Gobi to assist with the long-term ecological study on snow leopards (LTES). He was a young, honest and strong lad who didn’t speak much English, but had the passion to work in the mountains. He worked with a diverse team of Mongolian and non-Mongolian researchers and volunteers.
Within days he understood what it took to look for appropriate sites and set up camera traps, and soon enough he learnt how to set up camera traps in the field on his own. Everyone was so impressed with him that he was almost immediately absorbed into the team at Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation (SLCF) led by Bayara Agvaantseren, Mongolia Program Director. Sumbe was hired full time in 2012 and became the primary Research Associate for Snow Leopard Trust’s Long-term Ecological Study (LTES) in Mongolia, and also conducted research throughout Mongolia for Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation (SLCF), the partner organization to Snow Leopard Trust. Coming from a family with deep connections with nature, he was a natural with all the new tasks he undertook.
Sumbe became an indispensable member of our team. He was our key researcher in the field conducting prey surveys using double-observer methods, helping with camera traps set up, tracking down snow leopard collars whose satellite communication was broken or expired, managing the research centre, maintaining good relationship with the local communities, and assisting with collaring snow leopards
He began assisting with surveys and conservation programs in other parts of the country where Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation was operating. He also enrolled for his Master’s degree in the University, and as part of his dissertation conducted valuable surveys in the Tost Mountains in South Gobi using the method of double-observer counts. One of the finest papers on prey abundance using this methodology in the field came recently with Sumbe as the lead author. He also co-authored other scientific papers that focused on snow leopard population dynamics and snow leopard diets. He was developing into a fine scientist.
Sumbe had a never diminishing flame in him to learn and improve his skills. He spent several weeks in India, honing his statistical skills and knowledge about ecology while staying and studying with colleagues at Nature Conservation Foundation. This is when he also took a formal course in English.
In July 2014 Sumbe was awarded a grant from CREOi to travel to the United States to increase the capacity within Mongolia for snow leopard research and animal handling and care based on practices utilized by Sound Equine Veterinary Hospital Director, Dr. Cary Hills and Fish and Wildlife Department cougar experts as well as veterinarians at the Woodland Park Zoo. Sumbe eagerly developed and built upon his own skills and understanding of animal care including the safe handling of large mammals, helping him increase his ability to assist in the long-term ecological study with his ungulate studies as well as to assist in the snow leopard collaring project.
Sumbe was to present his work at the upcoming Student Conference on Conservation Science in the coming spring. His paper for oral presentation was selected by the conference organizers. He had also earned a spot to spend a month in UK to intern with some of the finest zoos, honing his skills on handling wild animals.
Sumbe will be missed sorely. Thinking of him will continue to bring a smile to us forever, but will also pain our hearts, for he left us much too early. His never-ending energy, unfailing enthusiasm and unmatched compassion will inspire us always.