The Gobi Diaries, Part III: Following in the Cats’ Footsteps

After a week of intense preparations, a calmer routine settles over snow leopard research camp in Tost, Mongolia.

Day 8, April 14, 2018

With all the snares set in the most promising spots, a calm mood settles over snow leopard research camps. Örjan and Gustaf still work long days, but the rush of the first week has given way to a routine that is familiar to them by now: collecting data about the cats and their habitat during the day and analyzing it in the evening – and sometimes chatting with the herders from nearby camps over tea while waiting for the trap alarm to go off.

Our neighbors, herder Ganaa and his wife, visit our ger. With a few Mongolian phrases and lots of gesturing, Gustaf and Örjan explain to them where we hope to catch cats – and ask them to keep their goats away from our snares. Photo: SLT

For me, the waiting game is exhilarating. I’ve never seen a wild snow leopard, so the prospect of capturing and collaring one – touching one – is of course very special. But alas, the first couple of nights pass without any such luck.

Ganaa’s goats pass by our ger on the way back to their holding pen. Photo: SLT

Camp life never gets boring though. We still have lots of cat locations to check for dead prey animals. And there’s always the stunning landscape of the Gobi, begging to be explored on the back of our trusty ATV.

Day 9: April 15, 2018
Gustaf is hiking up a steep ravine to find a snow leopard resting spot. The cat was scaling these same boulders with considerably more ease just days ago. Photo: SLT

Today, Gustaf and I made another excursion in the footsteps of our collared snow leopard, M13 aka Nachin Devee. A week ago, he spent his day somewhere near our camp, high up among the rugged peaks, and we wanted to see what he had done there. After breakfast, we packed lunch and sunscreen (this place is heating up fast), and set out to find M13’s hangout.

We hiked up a broad valley, flanked on either side by steep cliffs. Eventually, Gustaf’s GPS suggested we climb up a steep ravine to our right. Along the way, we saw plenty of snow leopard signs: fresh scrapes, some pee markings, and scats.

As we got higher, and the terrain got steeper, we heard what we thought was the warning whistle of an ibex – and sure enough, a few minutes later, we reached a broad ledge where we found very fresh ibex droppings, and the rocks were still wet from fresh ibex pee despite the glaring sun. No sign of the majestic mountain ungulates though. We did find M13’s day rest location nearby though – he’d left a few fine hairs, and a pile of poo.

Dried snow leopard scats – a clear sign of the cat’s presence. Photo: SLT

Nothing indicated a kill – so this was another rest site. Gustaf noted our findings in his journal, and we headed back down the valley. Back at camp, I decided to hike up to another nearby ridge where he had seen fresh snow leopard signs before. We had a few camera traps in camp that would not be used for a scientific study for a few weeks, so I set them to take HD video, and carried them up the mountain. On the ridge, I found two promising spots, and installed the cameras – facing westward in the hope of catching beautifully backlit footage of a snow leopard taking an early morning stroll. In a week or so, I’ll go back to the cameras to see if the plan worked!

Day 10: April 15, 2018

Another day of cluster visits! Gustaf and Örjan never seem to tire of scrambling up steep mountains. I wish I had their stamina!

Örjan also scouted out another potential location where we could capture and collar ibex – one of the goals for this spring’s field season. These mountain ungulates are the snow leopard’s key prey, and they’re almost as difficult to catch as the cats that feed on them. Water holes are the most promising spots, since the animals will show up there sooner or later.

Ibex are among the snow leopard’s main prey species. Photo: SLT

In a few days, when weather conditions are favorable, we may make an attempt here – Örjan near the water hole, dart gun at the ready, disguised by a camouflage suit; Gustaf and I higher up the mountain to spot the ibex as they approach.

First, however, I’ll get to spend some time with local herders. My colleague Nadia Mijiddorj is arriving from Ulaanbaatar tomorrow.

Nadia Mijiddorj is part of our team of female Mongolian conservationists. Photo: SLT

Nadia grew up near Tost and knows the local people and their culture better than anyone else. She earned her Master’s degree in biology, and is currently working toward her PhD; studying the complex dynamics between people, wildlife and ecosystems in the South Gobi.

Nadia interviewing a herder about his attitudes towards snow leopards. Photo: SLT

Together, we’ll visit and interview members of the local community who have helped us protect snow leopards for more than a decade. I’m hoping to learn more about what motivates these local conservation champions, what the challenges they face are, and how their lives have been impacted by the presence of the “Ghost of the Mountain”.

The Tost Mountains are in many ways a perfect illustration for the potential of community-based conservation. For decades, conflicts over livestock predation were the biggest threat to snow leopards in this area. Thanks to the support of our donors and partners – and thanks to the amazing work of our local team at Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation – we have been able to work with the local herders to improve the situation and practically eliminate retaliation killings of snow leopards: predator-proof corrals help prevent livestock losses, a community-run insurance program helps offset them when they do happen, and the handicraft program Snow Leopard Enterprises provides many local families with much-needed additional income, increasing their tolerance for and ability to live with snow leopards.

A simple fence deters snow leopards and other predators from entering a livestock holding pen and killing valuable goats and sheep. Photo: SLT

However, as our partnership with the local community grew stronger, a new threat emerged in Tost: mining. In 2008, we discovered that most of the snow leopard habitat of Tost was given away to mining companies for exploration and eventual extraction of minerals – a potentially fatal threat to the cats! Our team began to work, side by side with the local herders, to protect this landscape, its pastures and wildlife. In 2010, they achieved a first small victory, as the area was put under local protection, and mining expansion was temporarily halted. In 2016, after another 6 years of campaigning, lobbying and planning, the (nearly) impossible became reality: Tost was put under federal protection by the Mongolian government as the “Tost Tosonbumba State Nature Reserve”; the first protected area anywhere in the world that was created specifically for snow leopards.

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

This incredible success story would not have been possible without the tireless local champions of Tost; livestock herders, many of them with little formal education, who learned how to navigate the political, legal and social systems of Mongolia and protect their land, their lifestyle, and their wildlife. In the coming days, I’ll get to meet some of them – it’ll be a true honor!

Read the full Gobi Diaries

The Gobi Diaries, Part VII: Save the Best for Last

The Gobi Diaries, Part VI: The Snow Leopard Has Saved Our Land

The Gobi Diaries, Part V: Hey Again, Anu

The Gobi Diaries, Part IV: Uncooperative Cats

The Gobi Diaries, Part III: Following in the Cats’ Footsteps

The Gobi Diaries, Part II: Setting Traps

The Gobi Diaries, Part I: Welcome to Tost

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