After a week of planning and preparing and 3 exhilarating weeks of field work in Mongolia, Senior Regional Ecologist Koustubh Sharma is back home in Delhi, working on analyzing the wealth of data collected over the last months. He shares some of his experiences with us.
Back in Delhi, I am recovering from and reflecting on the incredible recent field trip to Gurvan Saikhan National Park in South Gobi, Mongolia.
In less than 3 weeks, our team, consisting of our research manager, Purevjav Lkhgavajav (“Puji”), our driver Mijid Amir (“Miji”), and myself, set up 38 research cameras in the Nemegt, Gilbent, Tsokho and Sewrei ranges of the National Park, an area of roughly 1500-2000 sq km we hadn’t previously covered with our cameras. We drove about 1000 km on non-existent tracks through beautiful, rugged landscapes with only very few human settlements, no roads and few sources of water. When the car couldn’t go any further, we put on our boots and hiked. We covered about 150 km on foot; climbing and descending nearly 8000 meters (over 26,000 feet) in altitude.
I had bought sturdy new hiking boots in Ulaan Baatar before setting off for the field trip… when I went back to the store on my return to get some other equipment, the salesman refused to believe these were the same boots I bought 3 weeks ago from him.
Support from local rangers
It’s impossible for a handful of researchers like us to be able to cover the vast snow leopard habitats of the South Gobi entirely on our own. Furthermore, one can never replace the skills, privileges and knowledge of locals when it comes to surveying and monitoring these areas. Fortunately, the local park rangers representing different ranges of the Gurvan Saikhan Strictly Protected Area are eager to help and very interested in learning about the means and methods to study and monitor wildlife – and the Protected Area Director and Environmental Specialists at the Protected Area are extremely supportive of these efforts. During this recent field trip, we were able to train 19 rangers who will be helping us with our camera studies, as well as with collecting scats, finding and aging scrapes and pug marks, and counting animals using double observer methods – allowing us to greatly expand our capacities in the area!
Missing collar remains a mystery
Perhaps the only failure during our trip was that we couldn’t find the GPS collar that one of the male cats in our study, Aylagch, had been wearing. As the collar had stopped sending any location data to the satellite a few weeks ago, we were planning to locate it through the radio signal it would surely still be emitting. We surveyed Aylagch’s entire home range with the help of rangers but could not hear the collar’s radio signal. One morning, we thought we heard the receiver beep from a high and windy ridgeline facing a long valley, but the sound stopped before any of us could pinpoint the location – so at this point, we can’t tell for sure if Aylagch is still wearing the collar or where he might be.
We’re hoping that the analysis of our most recent research camera photos will reveal where this particularly elusive cat has been hiding and perhaps also what happened to his GPS collar.
Thanks to everybody for tolerating me during the entire trip. I feel privileged to be able to work with such an incredible team. Puji was meticulous in collecting data; Miji navigated to the non-existent tracks in this remote region with the skill of a monster truck driver (although at a somewhat less monstrous speed). The help and local knowledge of all the rangers who assisted us in surveying and setting up the research cameras in different zones of the Protected Area was of immense value as well. This great collective effort enabled us to extensively survey and set up cameras in a new area in what has to be a record time.