Back in the (Motorbike) Saddle

Field scientist Örjan Johansson is back in the South Gobi, the site of our long-term snow leopard study. Together with his colleague Gustaf Samelius, he’s attempting to collar snow leopards and ibex this spring to allow us to track their movements. This is his field diary.

It’s been two years since I last was in camp. I’ve missed the people and life here in camp and it’s great to be back! Well, I haven’t missed all of it! I could live without the dust, canned food and lack of a shower.

Right as we landed in Ulan Bator it became apparent that it’s been a while since I was here. Our driver, Byamba, picked us up and started asking things in Mongolian. I had to pick my brain hard to find the (somewhat) right words to reply. I think I replied in a mix of Mongolian, Spanish and Mumbo-jumbo. 

The day after, we set out for camp – and again it became evident that I’ve been away for a while, this time when when Byamba asked if I could drive for a while so he could get some rest. If you’ve never driven on Mongolian dirt roads, let me just say that it’s an adventure! You have to choose the right car track from a handful of parallel ones, and keep an eye out for potholes, rocks, crevices, camels etc. while keeping the speed high enough to arrive at camp before midnight.

A view of base camp in the Tost Mountains of Mongolia. Photo: SLT

Somehow, we made it there in time. The morning after we arrived in the Gobi, we began setting up our remote trapping camp, and now everything is finished, camp is cleaned and the traps are out. We use snare traps to capture snow leopards, so we can immobilize them and fit them with GPS collars. 

There’s plenty of snow leopard signs in the ravines where we try to catch cats. Gustaf, who is a bit more enthusiastic than I am, thinks the sign density in the area looks fabulous. I’ll go as far as saying that it doesn’t look too bad. Not too bad at all. There should be a couple of cats passing by before it’s time to go home. Actually, a snow leopard walked through one of the ravines in the two days that passed between our scouting hike and when we came back to build the traps. Hope it comes back…

One of the wild snow leopards of Tost, a population we’ve been studying for many years. Photo: SLCF / SLT

On the second night of trapping, our trap surveillance system, that’s designed to alert us of any changes – e.g. when one of the snares is activated by an animal, or when something isn’t working properly – started sounding the siren. In this case, the system was alerting us that it couldn’t detect one of the traps. 

Twice, we climbed up to nearby mountain from where we can listen for the trap’s radio signal and adjusted frequencies, made sure that everything worked, and headed back to bed, thinking that we would get to sleep now. But the same thing happened again and again. Finally, I noticed that the system couldn’t detect the signal if I moved the cable to the ear-phone, and I understood that the cable or connection must be broken. 

Orjan in the reserach ger
The ger at our base camp in Tost is both home and office to Örjan Johansson. Photo: SLT

So I brought the whole system down to the ger, which is both home and office during our time in camp, and then Gustaf and I carefully took the cable and connection apart.

Would have been a fun photo, the two of us at the low dining table with headlamps, desperation glowing in our faces, knowing that if we couldn’t fix the system, there wouldn’t be much sleep for us the coming month – because without this system, one of us would have to climb the mountain every other hour to listen for the trap’s radio signals.

Fortunately, we were only in for one sleepless night! After an hour or so, we found the break in the cable, and were able to fix it.

Tomorrow, we will begin assembling the two big box traps for the upcoming new ibex project, where we will collar ibex, goats and snow leopards in the same area for the first time. This should increase our understanding of how the snow leopards use the landscape, why they attack goats, and of course a lot about ibex ecology. 

Ibex in Mongolia
This year, we’re hoping to collar ibex for the first time to better understand this crucial snow leopard prey species. Photo: SLCF Mongolia / Snow Leopard Trust

We hope that we can attract the ibex to the traps with salt licks, as that has worked well in other areas. We are a little concerned though that there is too much salt in the ground here already, and that the ibex will not be too interested in our bait. 

So to test if salt licks will work in the Gobi, we placed a few in the mountains last autumn, and set up remote cameras to keep an eye on them. Today, we collected the cameras and checked out the photos. There were a few ibex licking the salt, sure – but we now suspect that there may be an ‘opposing team’, sabotaging our ibex study… the snow leopards! 

The first piece of evidence: It turns out that there were more snow leopards licking the salt than ibex. Secondly, one of the ibex surveillance cameras was destroyed! We found it in pieces about 50 m from the salt lick, with the batteries removed and spread out in the grass. The last photo this particular camera took shows a snow leopard aiming straight for it. And finally, we strongly suspect that the local snow leopards are in the habit of killing our study subjects… 

Jokes aside, it’s good to see a lot of cat activity in the area, and we’re confident we’ll get a couple of ibex in due time as well.

On a more somber note, while Gustaf and I were in the Gobi, we heard there has been a terror attack in our home country, Sweden. It’s a strange feeling to be so far away from home and receive this kind of news. While none of our friends and family were directly affected, it’s still a terrible tragedy, and our hearts go out to the victims and their loved ones. We’re glad to hear though that the people of Sweden are reacting to the tragedy with an outpouring of love and care. That’s the only way forward. 

I’m looking forward to sharing more news with you soon!

Cheers,
Örjan

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