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

The last full day in camp brings an inspiring conservation with a herder and a beautiful parting gift from a cat.

Day 19, April 24, 2018, 8:00pm

It’s my last full day in camp. Örjan and Gustaf make another attempt at capturing and collaring ibex, while Nadia and I spend the morning meeting with Amara, one of the leaders of our community-run livestock insurance program.

Amara, a herder and one of the most active community conservation leaders in Tost, with his son. Photo by SLT

Amara is setting up a ger for spring season with his son when we catch up with him. Like many herders in Tost, Amara will spend the next months mostly on the move, following the sparse rains across the landscape, taking his goats to wherever shoots of grass begin to sprout. Gradually, he’ll move away from the mountains and into the steppe.

Most herders bring their herds into the Tost Mountains in winter to shelter the livestock from the relentless icy winds on the steppe. This is when predation by snow leopards tends to be the highest.

But in summer, when weather permits, Amara and most his fellow herders move their goats out of the steep, rugged mountains where the snow leopard lurks, and into flatter areas. This gives mountain pastures time to recover for the next winter season, and is easier on herders’ knees and backs as well.

Amara is attaching a heavy rock to the outside of his ger to hold the lightweight, portable structure in place in the relentless winds of the South Gobi. Photo by SLT

Amara agrees to take a break from setting up his temporary ger and share his story with us. His son, meanwhile, continues lugging gear and supplies from their van into the makeshift home.

In the early 1990s, Amara tells us, he used to work for the government; tending to horses in the South Gobi. Every winter, he lost several horses to snow leopard attacks – and the government made him cover the losses from his meager salary! Understandably, he didn’t like either his employer nor the snow leopard very much after this experience.

“When conservationists first started showing up here in Tost and talking about increasing snow leopard numbers, I was against it”, he recalls. “Why would we want more of these pests?”

Amara used to hate snow leopards. Now, he’s working to protect them. Photo by SLT

However, he found the conservationists – a team from our Mongolia partner, Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation – surprisingly open to his ideas. At a community meeting, he said that herders needed to be compensated for livestock losses if there were to be more snow leopards.

Our team had the exact same idea. Inspired by the success of a similar program piloted in India, they suggested to establish a livestock insurance program in Tost; managed by the community themselves, and co-financed at the beginning by conservationists and herders together.

A large number of herders liked the idea, and shortly thereafter, the livestock insurance fund was set up. Initially; premiums for herders were very low, with the Snow Leopard Trust providing most of the funds. But over a period of five years, contributions of herders themselves rose steadily, and the program became mostly self-sustaining. A committee of herders set premium amounts and compensations to be paid out in case of losses. Amara was chosen by his peers as one of the program leaders, responsible for managing the insurance funds.

Amara was selected by his peers to be a leader in the community-run livestock insurance program. Photo by SLT

Within a few months, this man who used to hate snow leopards had become an active participant in a program designed to protect them.

Over the years, through educational events and materials provided by our Mongolia team, Amara and his fellow herders learned more about the endangered cat they shared these mountains with. They began to understand its behavior and its needs. And, thanks to the insurance program and other initiatives, they could now coexist with the snow leopard.

Tolerance for the stealthy predator has grown among the herders of Tost – and so has their interest in the cat. Neighboring herders frequently stop by our camp, ask questions and look at trap camera photos of snow leopards. Perhaps it is because many of them have recently come to realize just how valuable the snow leopard had become to this community.

Most of Tost Mountain was licensed for exploration to mining companies from 2005 onwards. Side by side, herders and snow leopard conservationists have been fighting ever since to protect this precious habitat, its pastures and its wildlife from destruction by mining.

A new mining camp, established in March 2018 just outside the borders of Tost Nature Reserve. Photo by SLT

In 2016, this effort paid off, when Tost was declared a State Nature Reserve, and mining licenses were cancelled.

Amara and his fellow herders are keenly aware that the presence of a healthy population of the endangered snow leopard was one of the key arguments for protecting these mountains they call home: “the snow leopard has saved our land”, he says.

It’s a remarkable sentiment coming from a man who, for decades, only saw these cats as a problem. Amara’s transformation gives me hope, both for the future of the snow leopard and the herding community of Tost.

A Parting Gift?

Back at camp in the early afternoon, will myself to put on my hiking boots one last time. I want to retrieve the two camera traps I had set up on the ridge across the valley a week ago. Would they have captured some cool footage? I‘ve mostly accepted that I probably won‘t witness a capture of a cat on this trip – but some nice video would certainly be a sweet consolation!

It’s a short, but steep climb up to the ridge. After 30 minutes or so, I reach the first camera location. Breathless with exhaustion and excitement, I slide the memory card into my camera, and… nothing. “No files found”, the screen says. I double-check that the camera was indeed switched on. It was. In that case, it would have at least captured video of me walking up to it just now. What could possibly have gone wrong?

Discouraged, I gather up the second camera and scramble back down to camp. I make some coffee and decide to give it another try, this time with a computer. I slide the first memory card into the slot and open the folder. And, eureka, there are a handful of video files! Excitedly, I open the first. On my screen, I see Ganaa, the herder from our neighboring ger, with his dog. Same with the next couple of videos. Ganaa and goats.

There’s one file left. I open it, and my heart skips a beat. In the very corner, mostly out of the frame, there’s some black and white fur. As it moves, I see half a snow leopard’s head – an a GPS collar. It’s M13, our young collared snow leopard. He indeed came to the location I had anticipated, but chose a spot just out of the camera’s view to scrape and linger!

I’m learning a frustrating lesson that our research teams encounter daily when they set up camera traps: it’s a fine line between success and failure when it comes to capturing footage of the Ghost of the Mountain!

Fortunately, I have another shot. Would my second camera have caught M13 on his along the ridge? I open it up. The folder is full of video files! I skip to the date of the encounter on the first camera. One file. Double click. And then, a broad smile!

 

It’s M13, in an almost perfectly framed shot, walking across the screen in broad daylight! Getting this type of footage is a bit like winning the lottery – these cats are mostly active at dusk and dawn, and rest most of the day.

I can‘t help but be a bit proud of „my“ footage when I show it to Örjan and Gustaf, and later to Ganaa and his wife Altantsold who look in for a cup of tea.

After they‘ve left, I begin packing my bags. Tomorrow at 9am, Miji and Nadia will pick me up for the long drive back to Ulaanbaatar. Before I close the zipper, I hesitate – then take my warm jacket, hat and gloves back out of the bag. Who knows, I might yet need them during my last night in camp, and if the trap alarm sounds, there won‘t be time to search for them!

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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