The Gobi Diaries, Part I: Welcome to Tost

Join SLT Communications Manager Matt Fiechter for a behind-the-scenes look into our snow leopard study in Mongolia.

The Tost Mountains rise from the Gobi Desert like an island from the sea. The next mountain chain, Nemegt, is 40km away. Photo by SLCF Mongolia 
Day 1: April 7, 2018, 2pm.

We’re in Dalanzadgad, the provincial capital of South Gobi, Mongolia. 9 hours ago, our driver Byamba and myself picked up Örjan Johansson, the Swedish biologist who leads our snow leopard study, at the airport in Ulaanbaatar. Örjan had traveled through the night, but didn‘t want to lose any precious time in camp. So we hit the road immediately. And what a road it was! An 500km strip of asphalt, first through the steppe and later through the desert, with only a few scattered settlements and the occasional herd of sheep or troupe of camels. It’s been quite an introduction to the vastness – and loneliness – of the Mongolian landscape.

On the way, we caught up on gossip and life in general and talked camp logistics. It‘s my first trip to the Gobi, so I had lots of questions. Örjan, who has been there more than a dozen times, answered them patiently. He laid out the plan for the coming weeks: tomorrow, we‘ll join our colleague Gustaf Samelius, who‘s already in camp, and set up snares to capture and collar snow leopards. Gustaf and Örjan will be in the field for around 6 weeks. I‘m joining them for 14 days.

We‘ll be working in the Eastern part of the Tost mountain range, where one of our currently collared cats, Nachin Devee aka M13, lives. His current collar is scheduled to fall off in a few months, and Örjan hopes to collar him once more for another 18 months. Nachin Devee is a young male who‘s still establishing himself in these mountains, so following him for another year and a half could potentially teach us a lot about how these cats migrate before they find their home range.

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

Apart from Nachin Devee, we‘re hoping to catch and collar at least one or two females this spring to learn more about the reproductive cycle of snow leopards.

The other main target of this trip: collaring ibex. These mountain ungulates are the snow leopard‘s main prey species, and we want to understand how they use the landscape and potentially interact with the cats and with domestic livestock. Unlike for snow leopards, catching ibex involves box traps – large cages they‘re lured into and caught in.

A box trap waiting for careless ibex. Photo by Snow Leopard Trust

To our knowledge, no ibex have ever been collared and tracked with GPS anywhere in Asia, so this is an exciting new frontier, and could bring valuable insights into the ecology and behavior of this key snow leopard prey.

Once all the traps are set, we‘ll have time for other exciting daytime tasks, such as visiting sites where our collared snow leopards took down prey and recording what species they‘d caught. I’ll also take the opportunity to join our Mongolian colleague Nadia Mijiddorj as she visits some of the local herder families who partner with us for conservation, and record their stories.

During the night, we‘ll be sleeping with our collaring (and, in my case, filming) equipment ready – at any moment, the alarm could go off to let us know that we‘ve caught a snow leopard. These cats are most active at dusk and dawn, so those are the times when success is most likely.

The snares we use are simple, but ingenious devices. Hidden under gravel, a steel rope is looped around a trigger. When a snow leopard steps on the trigger, the rope tightens around the cat‘s paw, and captures it without hurting the animal. An alarm goes off, and we set out immediately to tranquilize and collar the snow leopard.

I‘ll write more about this procedure at a later stage; hopefully after a successful collaring. For now, it‘s time to go. After all, we have another 10 hours‘ driving on a bumpy dirt road ahead of us until we reach our base camp in the Tost Mountains!

Day 2: April 8, 2018, 11pm.

We finally reached base camp at 10pm last night. Stirred, but not shaken, after a 16-hour car journey. This morning, we woke up to a gloriously sunny day, and to hot water for coffee brought to us by Oyuna, the camp’s cook and its heart and soul. Today is the big packing day – all the supplies, gear and equipment Gustaf and Örjan will need for collaring snow leopards have to moved to the mobile trapping camp. Miji and Ganaa, the camp driver and research manager who are stationed in Tost, have already set up a gear and filled up the water tanks. We fill the new camp van with boxes upon boxes of material of varying degrees of exoticism. The purpose of some of it is obvious even to an outsider:. a box labelled “collars” doesn’t need much explanation. Other things we pack are more obscure, but will become clear in the next days.

After about two hours, we are ready to move! Gustaf and Örjan take the dirt bikes, Ganaa follows in an ATV, and I get to ride shotgun with Miji in the van. It’s the most comfortable, but least adventurous mode of transportation in the Gobi.

I suspect the guys don’t entirely trust my skills on an ATV, and neither do I. They definitely don’t trust me to ride a dirt bike, and neither do I.

Trapping camp this season is located in a narrow, steep valley about 18 km east of base camp. It’s a beautiful drive from base camp through a rugged, almost desolate, but nonetheless scenic mountainous desert landscape. On the way, Miji stops a few times and points out snow leopard signs such as scratches and pug marks. Clearly, we have come to the right place.

A herder family stopped for a chat on the way to camp. Photo: SLT

We arrive at the ger and begin to unpack and organize things. I’m the only one who has to ask what goes where for every box or bag I take from the van. The other four know the routine. While Örjan and I set up the kitchen and beds and store food supplies, Gustaf and Ganaa install the solar panel that will power our computers as well as the Irbis System, an ingenious monitoring system for our traps, which will alert us the moment an animal triggers one of them.

The “Irbis System” antenna, located on a ridge above our camp, picks up signals from all our traps, and alerts us if one is sprung. Photo by SLT

The system was custom-built by Torbjörn Johansson, Örjan’s brother, according to the needs of the study. The latest version, which we began using in 2017, doesn’t just ring the alarm when an animal is captured, it also tells the team which trap has been sprung. This has further cut down the time it takes the team to reach and tranquilize the animal; to around 20 minutes on average. In the early days of our study, Örjan first had climb a nearby mountain when the alarm rang, and use a radio antenna to listen and find out where the signal was coming from. Now, he and Gustaf can take one look at the Irbis System’s screen, put on their warm clothes and jump on the dirt bike within minutes of the alarm sounding.

Tomorrow, our main task will be to identify locations for the snares, and to begin setting them up. The closest location Örjan has in mind in only 200 meters from our ger. It’s quite an exciting thought – snow leopards regularly pass within earshot from where I’ll be sleeping tonight. However, we first need to get everything else ready. Once the snares are out, a cat could get caught at any moment – so every last detail of the collaring operation needs to be in place before the first snare is set.

Örjan checks, then double-checks his backpack, which contains everything from darts filled with the perfect mix of anesthetics to a thermal blanket to ensure the cat doesn’t get too cold during the procedure. At around 11pm, our work for the day is done, and we go to bed.

Örjan Johansson is preparing the darts he‘ll use to tranquilize a snow leopard before fitting it with a GPS collar. Photo by SLT

Thanks for following, and stay tuned for more action from snow leopard camp!

Day 3: April 9, 2018, 11pm

With every day I spend in snow leopard research camp, my admiration for the work of our scientists grows. These guys are not only very smart and diligent, they also work their butts off from morning to evening. Today was a prime example of this.

In the morning, Gustaf and Örjan set up a box trap to catch and collar ibex. I wish I could say I was of much help, but I‘m afraid I abandoned my camp mates after a while to head to Gurvantes and its spoils of civilization, i.e. an internet connection. After all, I‘m here to share what happens in camp.

A box trap waiting for careless ibex. Photo by Snow Leopard Trust

Ibexes have very delicate and slightly loose skin on their lower legs. Unlike snow leopards, whose thick fur protects them from getting hurt in a foot snare, ibexes might suffer injuries if caught this way. So we built two 10×4 feet box traps made of steel and wire mesh instead. The traps have sliding doors on either side that can be triggered manually to close the trap once an ibex has made its way inside. Tranquilizing and collaring the animal becomes safe and easy then.

That‘s the theory. Now, the practical challenge is to get the ibexes to enter the trap. In the alps, scientists have had a lot of success with salt licks they‘d attached inside their traps – ibexes are attracted by what is a special treat to them, and readily walk into the large foreign object that has suddenly appeared in their habitat. In the Gobi, however, there‘s a lot of salt and other minerals in the soil, and the local ibexes are too spoiled by the earth‘s riches to care very much for such extra treats.

a Mongolian ibex
the ibex is under pressure from cashmere goats

What they don’t have very much of though is water. So we‘ll try to use water to lure them into the trap. For that purpose, Gustaf and Örjan have set the trap directly over a water hole they know the ibex are using regularly.

The animals continue to have free access to the water despite the trap, but to get there, they’ll have to step into the wire-mesh cage, open at both ends.

Gustaf and Örjan have installed a remote-sensor camera nearby to observe the ibexes‘ behavior for a few days. Once it looks like the animals have gotten used to the large wire-mesh box, they‘ll position themselves in the rocks above (wearing military-style camouflage to avoid being detected) to manually release the door mechanism and trap the first ibex that enters.

At this point, you may be asking yourself why we go to all this trouble. Why capture and collar ibexes? And what does it have to do with saving snow leopards?

There is a short, simple answer. And there is a longer, more complex one. I‘ll try to give you both.

The simple version goes something like this: Ibexes are the snow leopard‘s most important prey species in this landscape. They are paramount to the cat‘s survival – so understanding their behavior is a very important piece to the puzzle of saving snow leopards.

The more complex answer requires a bit of background information:

In Tost, there are most likely between 2,000 and 3,000 ibexes. During the winter and spring, they share resources such as grass and water with around 45,000 domestic livestock – a number that continues to grow. In the summer and fall, on the other hand, herders take their animals out into the steppe, leaving the mountain pastures to the ibexes

Livestock herds are grazing in Tost during the winter. In summer, the pastures mostly belong to wild ungulates like the ibex. Photo: Charles Dye

As far as we can tell, it’s a fragile balance that currently still holds, but we don‘t know where the tipping point may be at which the number of livestock becomes too high and the ibexes no longer find enough food.

To understand these dynamics better, we decided to start collaring and tracking not just snow leopards, but domestic goats and ibex in Tost as well.

Thanks to the seasonal herding pattern described above, Tost presents a natural experimental setting – for around 6 months, the landscape is full of camel, sheep and goats, but the rest of the year, they‘re almost all gone. It’s like an ecologist’s wildest dream come true: both experimental and control site are in the same place! Collaring both ibexes and domestic goats during both of these periods will allow us to see how they impact each other, and how they interact – and how the ibexes’ behavior changes when livestock is around. This, in turn, could provide us with extremely valuable information about the impact of livestock herding on the ibexes, and ultimately the snow leopards.

We hope to get our first ibex this week, or perhaps next. Meanwhile, snow leopard collaring should start tomorrow.

In the afternoon, Örjan and Gustaf set up the Irbis System, which will alert us when a trap is sprung and we‘ve caught an animal. After dinner, they began preparing and programming the GPS collars. They have to set the frequency at which the collars send a position to the satellite as well as the date when they should drop off the cat.

Örjan and Gustaf, programming collars late into the night.

Once those key steps are done, we should be ready to set snares tomorrow morning. From that moment onward, we’ll be on „cat watch“ 24/7; ready at any moment for a cat to to be captured.

Around 11pm, the day’s work is done. Just as we get ready to go to sleep (well, the other two guys are – I’m typing these notes), our nearest neighbor‘s herding dogs, around 300 meters from our ger, start to bark furiously. Usually, this means they‘ve detected an unwelcome visitor – it might be a wolf sneaking around the area. Or it could be a snow leopard!

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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