The Gobi Diaries, Part IV: Uncooperative Cats

Tost's snow leopards prove to be as elusive as their reputation suggests. Halfway through collaring season, they've successfully evaded our carefully laid-out traps.

Day 12, April 17

My colleague Nadia has arrived from Ulaanbaatar. She‘s here to help me interview local herders about their lives, their views and attitudes toward wildlife, and their conservation work.

Miji, our camp driver, takes us on a road trip through the Tost and Tosonbumba Mountains to reach the herders’ remote gers. Our first stop is the home of Oyunsuren, one of the most active and engaged herder women in Tost. Oyunsuren is a local community leader who helps organize awareness campaigns around wildlife and frequently speaks to her fellow herders about nature conservation and protecting the ecosystem.

Oyunsuren has participated in most of our community-based conservation programs in Tost – Snow Leopard Enterprises, livestock insurance and the corral improvement pilot. Over tea and sweets, she mentions the value they all bring to the community, and the positive impact they have. But more than anything else, she underlines how these programs have brought the herders closer together. „We used to be neighbors, but not a real community. Now, thanks to these programs, we meet frequently, manage projects together, and help each other out.“

Just as I’m about to thank her for her time, Oyunsuren pulls out a book. As it turns out, she writes poetry in her free time – and one of her poems is about the snow leopard! We‘re treated to a recital, and both Nadia and I are too rapt to think about a translation. Good thing I have a recording – I‘ll make sure to get the English text soon.

Nadia (right) and Oyunsuren share the latest Gobi gossip while feeding the baby goats. Photo by SLT.

Before we leave, Oyunsuren lets us help her feed the baby goats, which is as adorable and as fun as it sounds!

Scavenger, Interrupted

We have two more herder visits on our schedule for today (and I’ll write about them tomorrow). But another fascinating encounter captures our attention first. As we make our way to the next ger on the winding dirt track through the mountains, we suddenly see a huge bird rise in the air less than 30 feet from our car. With slow, majestic wing flaps, it flies away – too quickly for a photo – having been disturbed by the noise of the approaching engine.

It’s a Lammergeier, the Gobi’s largest bird, and the quintessential scavenger. Even before we can see the spot where it had been sitting, in a small ravine just off the dirt road, we know we’ll find a cadaver there.

As it turns out, it’s a dead horse, mostly intact, and without the kind of visible injuries that would suggest a carnivore’s involvement in its death. As a snow leopard conservationist, the sight of a dead domestic animal always evokes a slight dread. Will the incident create a conflict?

Not in this case. A woman we meet on the road nearby tells us that the horse belonged to a nomadic herder who had passed through here a few days ago. It had died of exhaustion, heat or thirst – or all of the above. It’s a stark reminder of just how harsh and unforgiving these desert mountains are, and how fragile life is in these parts.

Miji Does Not Like the Music

We drive on. Perhaps to get our minds off the dead horse, Miji soon switches on the radio. For a place without cell phone connectivity, Tost has a surprising number of radio stations offering crystal clear sound quality. None of them please Miji though. Every 5-10 seconds, around the time the various tunes settle in my ear, he switches the channel. The options run the gamut of Western pop music, from Abba to Zendaya. Miji is not having any of it.

Miji is an excellent driver, a generous spirit, and a very discerning music lover. Photo: SLT

After approximately 30 channel changes, he finally finds the traditional Mongolian music he‘s clearly been after. And you have to give it to him: it‘s the most appropriate soundtrack for this cinematic landscape. Unfortunately, the station isn‘t a puristic one, and we’re caught again in musical globalization’s fangs after just one song. I recognize the first few seconds of an old Jay-Z track, and nod my head in nostalgic enthusiasm and appreciation of the DJ’s impressively broad repertoire.

With a deep sigh and the touch of his channel change button, Miji puts an end to this intermezzo and recommences his search of the airwaves for something with a more local flavor. He will continue to do so, without success, until we‘re back at camp. I don‘t get any more Jay-Z either.

The Cats are Messing With Us

While I was out to meet herders, Örjan and Gustaf have spent the day checking all our snares. One has been sprung by a fox! The canine did not get caught though – its ankles are too slender for the steel rope to close around. That‘s good for the fox – but it doesn‘t save us the work of rebuilding the snare.

On their way back to camp, Gustaf and Örjan also visited our ibex box trap to collect the memory card from the camera we’d installed earlier to monitor the area.

The photos will tell us if the ibex are starting to lose their fear of the large wire mesh cage, which is standing right above a small water hole. Once they start entering, we’ll hide near the trap and wait for one to enter. When it does, we‘ll be able to close the trap‘s doors via remote control.

Unlike the snow leopard snares, the ibex box trap does not work automatically. There is no trigger or trap wire that the animals could spring themselves. If the heavy steel doors at both ends of the cage were triggered automatically by an animal entering, they could potentially pose a danger. For instance, if a second ibex or other animal were to follow the first into the trap, it could be hurt by the doors slamming shut. To avoid that, the doors can only be closed manually by our team, via remote control, when it is safe to do so.

Back at camp, I’m cooking dinner, and Gustaf is tinkering with something or other, when Örjan suddenly unleashes a string of Swedish expletives that are not fit to type. He‘s staring at his screen in disbelief. Gustaf and I rush over. He’s looking at the photos from the ibex trap. On the screen, we see two snow leopards, a mother and a one-year old cub, going in and out of the box trap, drinking water, and even playing with the steel ropes that anchor the cage to the ground. The whole thing unfolded at 2am last night. The cats, while happily playing with the ibex cage, managed to avoid the snare we‘d set for them on the path leading from the valley to the water hole.

Cats will be cats. When mom is not looking, her cub starts playing with the steel rope anchoring our ibex trap to the ground. Photo: SLT

It is as if they‘re taunting us. A female with cub would be the ultimate prize – collaring the mother would give us precious information about reproduction and dispersal, areas where we still lack understanding. But alas, not this time. A few minutes after appearing at the trap, the duo disappeared back into the night. At least we know now that they’re here, in our trapping area. Perhaps we’ll get them another night!

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

One Comment

  1. One of the things I’ve noticed in studying cats, especially domestic ones, is that they are (quite possibly) smarter then we are. For these amazing snow leopards to continue to exist in a decidedly hostile environment it is a necessity.

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