At first glance, Mongolia’s Tost Mountains are a harsh, barren landscape. But look closer and you discover an incredibly diverse and rich ecosystem, with dozens of plant species and animals of all sizes – and the majestic snow leopard as the region’s most iconic species. This spring, after years of hard work by our Mongolian team and other environment advocates, Mongolia’s parliament has declared this area a State Nature Reserve.
In order to foster an appreciation and a sense of stewardship for this environment among local school kids, we invite a total of 40 sixth and seventh graders from schools in the area each year to participate in ‘eco-camp’ adventures; five-day camping trips into snow leopard habitat where the kids engage with nature in a playful, hands-on manner.
“We start by asking each kid to name their favorite animal, and then we discuss the role each of these creatures plays in the ecosystem”, explains Nadia Mijiddorj, who manages our eco-camps in Mongolia.
“Then, we invite the kids to use their five senses to experience nature. They smell herbs. They touch rocks, but also different grasses and bushes. They get magnifying glasses to discover the beauty in the smallest animals and plants. In the evening, we have each kid sit alone, in complete silence, and listen to the sounds of nature. Then we ask them to share their experiences with the group”. Nadia says.
“After these activities, the kids usually resemble a pack of hungry wolves. Thanks to our donors’ support, they had plenty of healthy, nutritious food available though”, she adds.
To help kids understand the concept of food chains, the team also turned meals into learning experiences.
Nadia and her colleagues used a simple game. “After lunch, we’d ask the children how they felt after eating, and discussed with them how we get energy from our food – just like the animals do. While the kids were sitting over dinner, we’d assign them certain animals and grasses, and would tie yarn around their fingers, and then connect them to each other with the yarn according to everyone’s food needs. So the kid who was ‘a snow leopard’ would identify its ‘prey’ and would hand the skein of yarn to the kid playing ‘an ibex’. The ‘ibex’ would then hand the yarn to the kid playing ‘grass’, and so on. Through this activity, the kids see the connections between each part of the ecosystem. Then, we would ask them what they thought might happen if one of the links in this chain were to disappear.”
Snow Leopard Day
One full day at camp is dedicated to the snow leopard and its needs. The kids get to see stunning research camera pictures of the elusive ‘Ghost of the Mountain’ – the first time many of them lay eyes on the cat. They learn about the threats the snow leopard is facing, and engage in role play exercises to help them understand human-wildlife conflicts. “Many of these kids have relatives who herd livestock, so they know the human side of predation by snow leopards. In camp, we try to show them the other side, the snow leopard’s point of view”, Nadia says. “Then, we explore ways to solve these conflicts with them.”
The highlight, however, is the visit to ‘snow leopard valley’. On the day before the kids leave camp, Nadia and her team take them on a hike into a nearby valley that’s frequently used by the area’s snow leopards as they roam their vast habitats. “We tell them to be quiet here, as this is the snow leopard’s home”, Nadia says. On the hike, the kids look for signs of the elusive cat, such as scrapes or prey carcasses, but also scats and scent marks – ‘we’re looking for poop and pee”, Nadia adds, laughing. With spotting scopes the team brings along, kids scan the mountain slopes for herds of ibex or other wildlife. And of course, they always hope to catch a glimpse of a snow leopard – but so far, no camp group has seen one.
“Even though the kids can’t see the snow leopard, they get a sense for its presence on this hike. It’s usually the kids’ favorite activity”, Nadia says.
Education researchers have shown that children begin to develop their capacity to think about the world and its issues in more abstract terms and to conceptualize ideas such as environmental protection. Our eco-camps are designed to help foster this sort of thinking, while also appealing to emotions and personal experiences.
To help these kids reflect on their role within their ecosystem, our teams asks each child to write a short essay about their dreams and hopes for the Gobi’s wildlife.
This year, 13 year-old Tuguldur Iderjavkhlan from the nearby town of Gurvantes wrote a particularly beautiful text that illustrates the impact the camps are having on the minds of these future conservationists:
“My dream is to conserve all the living things on earth. Many strangers kill our wildlife for greed. I would like to stop illegal hunting and unsustainable use of plants. Some people harm carnivores like the snow leopard, wolf, and bear to retaliate for livestock losses. We need to stop this also. People don’t really understand wildlife. Most animals do not harm people, and yet they are killed.”