Our researchers analyze thousands of snow leopard photos taken by automated camera traps every year. To estimate populations, they identify individual cats by their unique fur patterns, and enter the information in a database. To keep track of cats, they usually pick a name for each individual. Some scientists opt for dry, code-like names such as ‘M-1’ and ‘F-3’. Others choose more descriptive names (think ‘Scarface’ or ‘Longtail’). Not exactly inspiring, but I guess it works…
A while back, however, I stumbled across a very different set of names. Among the fourteen snow leopards identified in Mongolia’s Zoolon Mountains, there was a Messi. I also saw an Aguero, a DiMaria, a James, even a Bellerin. Someone had named these cats as if they were an all-star team of world soccer, led of course by Argentinian superstar Lionel Messi – but also featuring some names that would perhaps not be as familiar to a casual observer.
As a fellow lifelong soccer fan, I had to investigate! That’s how I got to know Tengis.
Tengis is a student at Mongolia’s National University. For his Bachelor’s thesis, he assisted our local team in a recent snow leopard population survey in Zoolon Mountains. He helped set up and retrieve remote-sensor cameras, and later pored over the images to identify individual cats.
“I’m a big soccer fan, so I thought it would be more fun and easier to remember if I gave the cats names of famous soccer players”, Tengis says. “I’ve been a fan of Real Madrid [one of Spain’s leading clubs] for seven years, so most of the names are of Real Madrid players.”
Tengis even tried to match the cats’ physical appearance to their namesake players. “For instance, Marcelo, who is my team’s left back, is short and has fluffy hair, and so does the snow leopard I named after him.”
During his work, Tengis was eager to soak up knowledge from our local experts, Research and Monitoring Manager Puji Lkhagvajav, and Regional Ecologist Justine Shanti Alexander. “I learned a lot about snow leopards from them”, Tengis says, “and it was a lot of fun to climb all these mountains to set up the cameras. It definitely makes you more tolerant of physical pain, too. I only wish we had seen a snow leopard in person!”
The survey wasn’t all fun and games though. “In Zoolon, we saw a lot of illegal mining activity by so-called ’Ninja miners’, individuals who come to this area to dig for gold.” Small-scale illegal mining has become a threat to ecosystems in the Gobi in the last few years. “It’s something we need to prevent in the future!”
Tengis hopes to continue working on wildlife conservation and earn his masters. He wants to see ‘his’ snow leopards in Zoolon grow old and have cubs. “We didn’t see any cubs on these photos. But I hope we’ll find some next year!”