The Gobi Diaries, Part II

Out research team in the Gobi is getting ready to collar snow leopards and ibex. Follow their adventures here.

Also check out The Gobi Diaries, Part I: Preparations

Day 4: April 10, 2018, 10pm

Last night, we heard our neighbor’s dogs barking, and thought they may have caught a whiff of a nearby snow leopard. Today, we checked the locations of the four cats we’re tracking right now, and it turns out one of them, Nachin Devee, or M13, passed by less than 300 meters from our ger just before midnight!

Nachin Devee, formerly known as M13, caught by a camera trap in Tost Mountains, Mongolia. Photo by SLCF Mongolia / Snow Leopard Trust

The polite thing to do in the Gobi when you’re near someone else’s ger is to stop by for a cup of tea and some chit-chat. Our cat unfortunately doesn’t seem to value these traditions, and chose to silently pass by. Still, it’s a pretty exciting thing to wake up to!

It’s also a reminder that it’s time to set snares! The prep work is done. Collars and equipment are ready, and there are clearly snow leopards nearby. “Operation Catching Cats” can begin (that‘s what I secretly call it – Gustaf and Örjan are too focused to come up with corny catchphrases).

After breakfast, we head to a nearby valley where we‘ve found lots of snow leopard signs in the days before: Scrape marks, paw prints, and unmistakeable stains from where a cat peed on a rock to mark its presence. Snow leopards love the steep, rocky cliffs that flank the valley, but when they want to cross to the other side of the range, they have to pass here – and it seems that they can‘t resist leaving their marks on the way.

Örjan and Gustaf are checking for the perfect spot to set a snare. They’re looking for scrape marks and other signs of cat activity. Photo by SLT

This makes the valley a the perfect place to capture and collar cats. In addition, it’s also very safe. Up in the cliffs, the terrain is much too steep. A snow leopard could injure itself after we release it, as it will be slightly shaky on its feet for a minute or so as the drugs wear off. Down here, on the other hand, nothing can happen to the cat; and once it‘s regained its footing, it can disappear into the mountains with its brand-new GPS collar.

Gustaf and Örjan have trapped in this valley before, so they know the best spots from afar. I‘m slowly getting the hang of it as well (at least I like to think so): snow leopards love to mark, sniff and rub against pointy, sharp rocks, preferably about 3 feet from the ground. We find fresh marks in several places, and identify three particularly promising ones to set our first snares.

First, Örjan deduces where the cat is most likely to set its paw when it marks or sniffs. That‘s where the snare will go. Then, he digs a hole, maybe 6 inches deep and a foot wide. In there goes a piece of foam, which will be the soft base for the snare‘s trigger. The trigger, when stepped upon, releases a throw arm, which pulls the steel rope up and around the cat‘s leg. It‘s not very tight, and it has enough wiggle room to ensure the cat doesn‘t hurt itself – but it‘s tight enough to trap the animal. When the snare is sprung, a magnet is pulled out of a transmitter, which sends a signal to camp and lets us know it‘s time to get out of bed and go put a collar on the cat!

Örjan sets a snare. The trigger inside the steel rope loop will release a spring, which throws the rope back and tightens it around the cat’s paw enough to trap it without causing harm. Photo by SLT

Örjan and Gustaf take about half an hour to build the snare, then spend about the same amount of time concealing it. They strategically place pointy rocks and thorny bushes near and around the snare, while the snare itself – or rather the trigger – is covered by invitingly smooth pebbles. The hope, of course, is to entice the cat to place its paw right on the money.

Örjan conceals the trap with gravel and twigs, making it look like the perfect spot for the cat to place its paw. Photo by SLT

We build three snares, then head back to camp to do some data analysis and – in my case – writing.

We also talk about the reasons why we do this work. Supporters and concerned cat lovers frequently ask us why collaring snow leopards is necessary, and whether it puts the cats at risk. These are fair and important questions which we‘re asking ourselves regularly as well.

We don‘t collar for collaring‘s sake. We most certainly don‘t collar for PR, or to raise funds. We do it to learn information about snow leopards that we can‘t get with any other method. For instance, we‘re learning about space use of individual cats, and how they overlap, or don‘t. We‘re also learning about reproduction, migration, and interactions between cats, and about what kind of prey they take down at what times and in which locations.

These things are crucially important if we want to protect snow leopards.

For instance, it was thanks to GPS collar data that we realized how important the steppe between mountain ranges can be as a migration corridor – and that we need to make sure the cats can still cross it if there is e.g. road construction.

Collaring, especially if it’s done consistently in a population over a long period of time, also gives us insights into key parameters such as reproduction cycles, age expectancy and survival rates of snow leopards. Such data is key to understanding how many snow leopards there really are, how stable or fragile these populations are, and what they need in order to survive.

Dagina is one of the cats we‘ve studied the longest. She‘s had cubs at least twice during this time.

In the Gobi, we‘ve been able to track 23 individuals in ten years, and several of them have been collared multiple times. Thanks to this, we‘ve been able to document the lives of cats such as Aztai, Anu or Dagina in unprecedented ways. Their stories allow us to understand how snow leopards grow up, how they mature and mate, establish their home ranges, raise cubs and hunt.

For instance thanks to the collaring data, we’ve found that snow leopard home ranges – at least in this part of their habitat – are so large that protected areas alone won’t be enough to save them. There’s only a handful of protected areas in snow leopard range that would be large enough to provide room a viable population. This insight reaffirms the need to involve local communities who live alongside snow leopards into their conservation, inside and outside of official protected areas.

The stories of Aztai, Anu and Dagina also illustrate that collaring, when it is done diligently, professionally and according to clearly defined protocols, doesn‘t affect the cats in a major way.

Take Dagina‘s case. She was born in 2009, while her mother was wearing a GPS collar. Two years later, she was collared herself for the first time – and 12 months later, she gave birth to her first cub. Her collar dropped of as planned after 18 months; but in 2017, Örjan caught and collared her once more; and there is some evidence that she may have cubs again. We‘ll try to verify this in the next weeks by analyzing camera trap photos.

Clearly, Dagina – like her mother before her, and like the other 21 snow leopards we‘ve tracked for parts of their lives – has been hunting, mating, surviving successfully with and without a GPS collar.

That said, there is no question that collaring is a relatively intrusive research method, compared to e.g. genetic analysis of scats or camera trapping. It is also resource-intense and time-consuming. We will continue to evaluate the need for it over the next couple of years, and will stop doing it once the need is no longer clear.

In the evening, we wait for the trap alarm to sound. Snow leopards are at their most active around or shortly after dusk, and around or just before dawn. Those are the most promising collaring times. But tonight, our first trappings night, it seems we‘re out of luck. We get to sleep instead of collaring a cat.

Day 5: April 11, 2018, 10pm

Örjan and Gustaf spent the day setting more snares in the northern part of “our” valley.

My mission for the day, meanwhile, was to find a workable internet connection so I could download an update to the software that allows us to program how frequently the GPS collars send location data to the satellite and when they drop off the cats.

The nearest town from our research camp is Gurvantes; a desert outpost 40km East with a decidedly frontier-like vibe and rather few amenities – except for 3G connectivity, and, rumor has it, a few places with precious, elusive Wifi networks.

Miji, our camp driver, was out for the day with the van, so I needed an alternative means of transportation to get to Gurvantes. Given the fact that I’ve never ridden any motorcycle larger than a scooter, and considering the condition of the “roads” in the Gobi, we decided that I’d make the trip on the ATV.

Gustaf filled up the tank and showed me how to screw the vehicle’s battery back in place in case it shook loose on the bumpy track (apparently, this happens regularly). I saddled up, put on my helmet and hit the road.

The Gobi desert is starkly beautiful. Photo by SLT

ATVs are amazing little vehicles; powerful, sturdy, and rather easy to handle. One thing they don’t offer, however, is comfort. After ten minutes of riding across washboard dirt roads, my arm muscles started to burn from the shaking. After 30 minutes, my back was equally sore. Nonetheless, the ride was nothing short of a thrill.

We often describe the Tost Mountains as barren, or even desolate. And they undoubtedly are. But these words don’t do this landscape justice. Because above all, they are stunningly, achingly beautiful. Against the radiantly blue sky, the rugged peaks shimmer in tones of copper and burnt sienna; evidence of the soil’s high mineral content. Tufts of pale yellow grass dot the slate-colored gravel along the track. And, as if put there by a generous artist mostly for my personal viewing pleasure, a herd of goats is enjoying the morning sun on a rocky slope to the North.

I stop every couple of minutes to take in the view and scan the slopes for signs of wildlife. I don’t have high hopes of spotting a snow leopard, but perhaps a few ibex? Without a spotting scope, it’s a hopeless endeavor.

As I get closer to Gurvantes, I come across a few herders on motorbikes. I wave at them, while they look at me with what I suspect is light bemusement – and I can’t blame them. After all, I’m wearing a warm, fleece-lined desert camouflage outfit I had bought on the market in Bishkek a while back, thinking it would serve me well in the Gobi. And so far it has. But it also looks ever so slightly ridiculous and out of place. But perhaps that’s just me being overly self-conscious and aware of how foreign I am to this unique corner of the world.

After an hour, as exhilarated as I’m exhausted, I reach the fringes of Gurvantes; a town of perhaps 200 gers and about as many houses. I look around for the only hotel, where I’ve been told there may be a wifi network. Finally, I find it: Hotel Altan Gov, a small brick building with a yard. It looks more like a family’s home than a hotel, and it seems to be deserted. But just as I’m about to turn around, a middle-aged man appears in the door and looks at me quizzically. My Mongolian language skills begin and end at “Bayar’la” (Thank you), and the man’s English is not much more expansive. He does, however, understand “Wifi” and “Internet”, and nods. I follow him into the house, and he offers me a chair in what looks like a living room rather than a hotel lobby. On a piece of paper, he hands me the login information, and a few minutes later, our three computers and my phone are all connected.

I find the software and begin downloading it onto Gustaf’s and Örjan’s computer in parallel while checking emails and updating the Trust’s social media on my own. In between, I type messages to family and friends on my phone. It must have been quite a sight – a wild-eyed and dusty man so desperate for an internet connection after a few days’ abstinence that he uses four devices simultaneously to satisfy his craving. Or someone who has urgent business of world-historical significance to attend to. I suspect the former is closer to the truth.

In any case, I successfully complete the software download and write a few posts, then pack up my tableau of cables and computers. The friendly man who let me in is nowhere to be seen. So, with Google’s help, I scribble “Bayar’la” on a piece of paper in what I hope is legible Cyrillic script, pin a 10,000 Tugrik bill under the note, and leave.

I get lunch at a nearby restaurant, where I again can’t shake the feeling that the other patrons find me rather amusing, then get back onto my trusty ATV for the long ride back to camp.

A roadside sign just outside announces the entrance to Tost Tosonbumba Nature Reserve, the protected area our study is set in. The area was threatened by mining, and was only protected thanks to the efforts of the local community, our Mongolia team, and our generous supporters. Photo by SLT

In the evening, I’m relieved to see that my mission was a success – the software works as planned, and Gustaf and Örjan can program the collars according to the study’s needs. They’ve set another four snares today, so we’re hopeful that a cat might trigger one tonight.

The next time I get a chance to go online, I’ll leave a glowing review for Hotel Altan Gov.

Day 7: April 13, 2018, 11pm

After some tinkering, the box trap we‘ve built to capture and collar ibex is now ready! Today, we installed a small engine that will pull the pins that hold the doors open at the touch of a button. Örjan will hide in the cliffs above the trap, disguising himself with what is perhaps best described as a military-style sniper suit. Instead of a rifle, he‘ll be armed with a remote control, ready to trigger the door closing mechanism as soon as an ibex has stepped into the box trap.

In the afternoon, Gustaf and I went on a so-called cluster visit. “Clusters” are locations where our collared snow leopards spent several hours. These can be sites where they made a kill and ate, or places where they took a rest (like all cats, snow leopards sleep A LOT. Up to 18 hours a day). Sometimes, clusters from two cats overlap – in these cases, they may have mated.

Gustaf and Örjan visit all such cluster locations in order to better understand how these cats spend their days, and in particular to record how often they make a kill. They note the prey species as well ad age and sex of any kill they find.

Today‘s cluster was on a ridge line just above our camp site – a short, but steep hike away. The data suggested that it was a resting place, rather than a kill site. After about 45 minutes of uphill scrambling, Gustaf’s GPS unit indicated that we had reached the precise spot where Nachin Devee, aka M13, the young male snow leopard we’re tracking, had spent a leisurely afternoon just a few days ago.

The view from M13’s day bed is quite spectacular. No wonder he chose this spot to rest! Photo by SLT

We quickly found his “day bed”, a flat area on a small ledge overlooking the valley we’d just trekked up. The grass was still pressed flat against the rock where the cat had rested, and we even found some thin white hair that Gustaf identified as a snow leopard’s.

We noted our findings, then hiked up a little further to the ridge line. From there, we were treated to an unforgettable view: before us, to the East, stretched the so-called “badlands”, a moonscape of rugged boulders and ravines that is barren and desolate even by the Gobi’s standards. To the South lay the endless, flat expanse of the South Gobi plain, stretching all the way into China; barely visible behind a manmade border fence and a natural curtain of sand and dust.

The view from the ridge line extends all the way into China. Photo by SLT

Just below us, at the foot of the mountain and the edge of the open desert, we can make out a herder’s camp: a ger, a motorcycle, and a simple enclosure for goats. Thanks to Gustaf’s binoculars, I can make out the metal fence our team has helped the herder build around the enclosure two years ago.

We hiked along the ridge line for a while, noticing snow leopard signs all along the way: scrapes, pug marks and even scats. Örjan and Gustaf call these surprisingly flat and wide ridges “snow leopard highways” because they’re used so often by these cats. Unfortunately, we can’t trap and collar snow leopards up here though. It would take too long to reach a cat in a snare, and the terrain is too steep for a drowsy cat that’s just waking up from anesthesia to safely navigate. We do use these ridge lines for camera trap studies though, which sometimes produces spectacular results.

Snow leopard scat – a common sight along Tost’s “snow leopard highways”. Photo by SLT

Exhausted, we head back to camp and make dinner. Then, the waiting game continues – but for tonight, it seems there will be no captures yet.

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