Day 20, April 25, 2018, around 5:30am
I wake up, at least halfway, when Gustaf turns in his sleep a few feet from me. Through the ger‘s roof opening, I can see that it‘s getting light out, but just barely. I‘m not fully conscious, but I register two things: it‘s too early still to get up and my last night in camp has passed without a snow leopard capture. I turn and fall asleep again.
The next thing I hear is an annoyingly persistent beeping sound that is forcing its way into my consciousness. It takes me a moment to understand what it is – and when I do, the sound turns to sweet music in my ears! It‘s a trap alarm!
I mutter something along the lines of „you‘re kidding me right now“, though the exact words may have been a bit more colorful. Örjan is looking at the screen of the Irbis System, our custom-built trap monitoring system. „Nope. Not kidding. Central 2.“ It‘s what we‘ve called one of the snares – and it has just been sprung.
Within seconds, all three of us are out of our sleeping bags. It’s 6:05am. Gustaf and Örjan move with an incredible efficiency. The collaring gear – dart gun, darts, warming blankets and two backpacks full of other equipment – is ready, as it is every night. While I’m still trying to understand what’s happening, Gustaf is already heating up water to fill a thermos bottle. In case a captured cat gets too cold during the collaring procedure, the water will be used to warm the animal.
We all put on warm clothes – I hadn‘t packed mine away yet in what must have been a moment of foresight – and head out into the crisp morning. It‘s less than ten minutes since the alarm sounded. Örjan takes the dirt bike, Gustaf and I the ATV. We drive down the valley towards „Central 2“. Gustaf allows that it could be a goat, an ibex or a dog that has sprung the trap – but he‘s optimistic that we did indeed get a snow leopard, since it’s still a bit early in the day for any of the other candidates to have been in the valley.
We park a few hundred feet from the trap location, out of sight of whoever is waiting for us there. Slowly and silently, we walk towards it. We try to make as little noise as possible and be as invisible as we can, so as not to stress the animal unnecessarily.
As we come around the bend, I can make out a dark gray silhouette. At first glimpse, it could be anything – but there is a telltale sign: a long tail, clearly visible against the gravel. There‘s only one animal in these parts that sports such a tail! It‘s trying to make itself as small as it can, but this snow leopard isn‘t fooling anyone!
Örjan gestures to us to stay behind and slowly approaches the cat, dart gun ready. He walks around the animal, looking for a good angle from which to shoot the dart that will make the snow leopard fall asleep. Örjan is aiming for the cat‘s thigh – a large muscle far away from it‘s head. When he’s about 40 feet from the cat, the dart gun goes PLOP, and a split second later, the snow leopard leaps several feet in the air – and we can clearly make out the bright pink dart that hit it right where it was aimed! I check the time: 23 minutes have passed since the trap alarm – that‘s a new record.
Örjan knows of collaring projects of large carnivores where an animal can be left in a snare for 24 hours or longer before being tranquilized. Our team, however, has optimized its approach over the course of 30 successful snow leopard collarings in the Gobi so much that it now takes them less than 45 minutes on average to tranquilize a cat after it’s been captured.
After the first surprise of being hit by a foreign object, our captured cat has settled down again. We calmly walk away and hide around a corner. In a few minutes, the snow leopard will be out, but we want to avoid any stress on the animal while the drugs take hold.
The dart contains a mix of two drugs. One of them makes the cat drowsy and sleepy, while the other relaxes its muscles. Their effect will last for about one hour (or, in the case of the muscle relaxant drug, until an antidote is administered). Time enough for the team to check on the cat‘s health and fit a GPS collar on it.
When six or seven minutes have passed, we make our way back to the snare. As I get closer, I can see that this cat is already wearing a collar! It‘s M13 aka Nachin Devee, the young male who‘s been our steady companion on this trip – from our early visits to his resting spots to the camera trap video I managed to film of him.
— Snow Leopard Trust (@snowleopards) April 27, 2018
He‘d been one of our „targets“ all along. As a young male, he‘s still searching for his eventual home range, roaming a large area and probably getting pushed around quite a bit by older, stronger males. For a young snow leopard, that‘s part of growing up. For us, it‘s a potential wealth of information! He‘s worn his first collar for a year, and it was scheduled to drop off this fall. Now, he‘ll provide us with an additional 18 months of data instead!
Örjan makes sure the cat is fully unconscious. Then, he and Gustaf take its paw out of the snare, tuck its long tail between its hind legs, and carry M13 away from the cliff where he was captured and into the flat, open area on the valley floor. Here, we‘ve laid out an insulating blanket and our collaring equipment.
Carefully, researchers @JohanssOrjan and @GSamelius carry an immobilized wild #snowleopard from a capture site into an open area to attach a new GPS collar. The cat will wake up from its slumber in about 1 hour, then wear its collar for 18 months & provide valuable location data. pic.twitter.com/ffzsiDZORT
— Snow Leopard Trust (@snowleopards) April 30, 2018
Gustaf and Örjan gently lay M13 down on the blanket and begin to work on the cat with an efficiency honed by ten years of experience. At the same time, they’re extremely careful, almost tender, with every touch of the animal. They blindfold it, then bring out tools to monitor its heart rate and temperature.
Örjan removes the old collar first. Then, they weigh the snow leopard to see of it has grown since the last capture. In the spring of 2017, the cat had weighed 35kg. In the capture protocol, Gustaf had noted that the cat had just eaten a large meal then. Now, a year later, M13 weighs 36kg, but its belly is empty. Nothing out of the ordinary here – the young cat is growing as usual.
Next, Örjan finds and removes a couple of ticks from the snow leopard’s ear – both as a small grooming service rendered to the animal and as a source of data. Blood samples from the ticks can give us information about diseases prevalent in the ecosystem.
If this were a snow leopard we hadn’t collared before, the team would inject a tiny microchip under its skin to identify it later. In this case, since M13 already carries a chip, they just double-check its him with a microchip reader.
Then, its time to fit the new GPS collar on the cat! Like our belts, GPS collars come with different holes to adjust their width. Since M13 has grown, his new collar will be a little wider than the last one – and it will leave him enough room for further growth. Örjan checks the fit, then tightens the screws.
Wild #snowleopard “M13” is fitted with a GPS collar by researchers @JohanssOrjan and @GSamelius in #Mongolia. The collar will send the cat’s location data to satellite for 18 months, then drop off automatically. M13 is one 23 individual snow leopards collared in our study. pic.twitter.com/r9FNPg535U
— Snow Leopard Trust (@snowleopards) April 30, 2018
When the collar is in place, Gustaf takes a blood sample from the snow leopard and stores it on strips of paper as well as in vials. These will be analyzed in a lab at a later stage.
Almost an hour has passed since M13 was darted, and the cat slowly begins to stir. We wrap our work up and move all the equipment a safe distance away. Then, Örjan injects M13 with the antidote that will make the drugs wear off a bit quicker. He removes the blindfold, and M13 looks right at us. It’s tempting to try and read a message into the cat’s stare (if we did, it would probably be “you guys are lucky I’m feeling so drowsy”). Either way, it’s a goosebumps type of moment I won’t ever forget. We retreat behind a nearby rock and give M13 time and space to shake off the drugs.
Slowly, he tries to rise. Unsteadily at first, but determined to get on his feet. We’ve made sure to collar him in a flat area, where he can recover safely, without the risk of falling down a steep cliff.
After a minute, M13 finds his footing, and trots away. He uses the tall grass for cover and tries to orient himself. Örjan is standing between him and the valley to the north, where he have more active snares. We want to make sure he doesn’t head in that direction. Gustaf blocks his way to the south, from where we can hear herding dogs barking loudly. Not the kind of encounter a drowsy cat should get into right now.
M13 weighs his options, and finally decides to go where we want him to go: west, up a small ridge and back toward the mountain peaks. His first steps between the rocks are still a bit unsteady, but it’s amazing to observe how quickly he finds his footing in familiar terrain. By the time he reaches the top of the small ridge, he has regained all his feline elegance and grace. He pauses in the sunlight, looks back in our direction one last time, then disappears behind the ridge – probably a but confused from the morning’s events, but otherwise in good shape.
Needless to say, I’ve been taking photos during the entire time. I can’t wait to check them out when we’re back in camp!
At around 8:30, we get back to the ger in a content, quiet mood. I’m of course by far the most excited, not quite believing my luck. It’s like a Hollywood ending to my trip to the Gobi, and it will take me a while to understand and process what a privilege this experience has been.
We eat a quick breakfast, then I pack away my gear – this time for good. Miji and Nadia arrive, and we share our morning’s adventures with them. Then, it’s time to say goodbye to Gustaf and Örjan and the ger I’ve called home for the last 3 weeks.
I have a lot of people to thank for this unforgettable experience:
First, tack så mycket to Örjan Johansson and Gustaf Samelius, my camp mates. You’ve been an absolute blast to hang out with. Your professionalism, diligence, compassion and humility are inspiring, and I’m honored to have witnessed your work. Also, sorry I used all the good stuff in our pantry for my cooking experiments. I hope you won’t run out of peanut butter!
I owe equally huge thanks to Nadia Mijiddorj. You’ve shown me a side of Tost and its herding community that I could never have experienced without you. It’s been a privilege to see your love and passion for this landscape, its wildlife and its people, and to learn from you.
Miji, Oyuna, Ganaa, Bayara, Puji, Doogi, Unuruu, Tuvshe and Byemba – the fabulous team of Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation Mongolia, both in Tost and in UB – your work for these cats is an inspiration! Thank you for all the help in making my trip both smooth and wonderful.
Everyone else at SLT who put up with me being more or less off the grid for 3 weeks – thanks for your patience and your faith in this crazy idea.
And finally, thank you to all our supporters who make this work possible. It’s one thing to be aware from a distance of the kind of impact you are having through your grants and donations. But to witness it first-hand – to hear stories of transformation, and of threats turned into opportunities – really made me understand just how incredibly valuable this work that you’re supporting truly is. It’s not a stretch to say that without you, the Tost Mountains – with their snow leopards, their ibexes, their gazelles, golden eagles and camels; but also their herder families and their traditions and culture – may no longer exist today, and least not in their current form. Thanks to you, they not only still exist, but have a real chance to thrive for generations to come.