A box trap waiting for careless ibex. Photo by Snow Leopard Trust
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.
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.
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
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.
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!
Day 2: April 8, 2018, 11pm.
Thanks for following, and stay tuned for more action from snow leopard camp!
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.
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.
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!