‘Tis no longer the Season: Closing Camp for Winter

As Snow Leopard Trust field scientist Örjan Johansson wrapped up more than 4 years of snow leopard fieldwork in our Long Term Ecological Study in Mongolia, the cats proved more elusive than ever. For the first time, no new cats could be collared.

By Örjan Johansson, November 2012

A few days ago, we did the last bit of data collection before closing camp for the winter. As we stood there, I realized that this was really the last data I’d collect for my PhD. After 4.5 years, I am finally finished! Quite an amazing feeling! There’s still a lot of analyzing and writing to do, but at least the first part of my work is done.

No Cats to Collar

Ibex in Mongolia
plenty of ibex, but no cats

Unfortunately, there is a bit of a sour note to these last days: None of the snares we’ve set at the beginning of the season have sprung; we did not manage to capture and collar a new cat this time! It feels really bad to end 4.5 years of fieldwork with such a failure.

But I don’t regret that I chose this area for the snares. When I plot the positions of our collared cats, there is a ‘hole’ with no cats at all in the exact area where we are. There are lots of ibex here, we see them almost every day, and the mountains are usually full of snow leopard signs. But still, for some reason, no cats! As we don’t want to trap cats that are already collared, this is the right place to be. Now if only there had been at least one cat around…

Maybe they will come to this area over the winter. We’ve deployed research cameras before leaving, so at least we’ll get a view!

A View to a Kill

Gustaf Samelius, the Snow Leopard Trust’s new Assistant Science Director, has joined me in base camp for an introduction into our field work in Mongolia. He is super excited about this place and our work!

Ariun, resting after the hunt

A couple of days ago, Gustaf and I sneaked in on Ariun, who had just hunted down a prey. We stayed about 600 meters away and observed him. Many carnivores rest a little ways away from their kills, but the snow leopards do not behave like this. Judging by GPS collar data, it is instead almost as if they sit on their prey.

Perhaps, they have to stay so close to protect their prey from scavengers. In our case, Ariun had caught a wild feral horse in a big open valley, which didn’t seem like the kind of place a snow leopard would be very comfortable in. But still, he was resting just a few meters from the horse. As we observed him, there was almost constantly at least one raven or vulture flying above him.

After the disappointment of the empty snares, it was nice to at least see a cat. For Gustaf, it was a first! The day was pretty cold, with a bone chilling wind and some snowfall, but we didn’t feel the cold as we excitedly watched the cat.

Packing Up

Orjan in the reserach ger
Last days in the ger

The ger in base camp is a complete mess right now. We’ve taken out everything and sorted it into boxes to take back to Ulan Baatar or piles of things to throw away. It’s amazing how much stuff people accumulate, thinking “this might come in handy and if I will ever need it, I’ll be sorry to have thrown it away”.

Well, if I haven’t used something in more than four years, I guess it’s safe to throw it away now.

Two days before we left, there was a Camel Race close to base camp. We had thought about entering the race for a moment, but then, probably wisely, decided against trying our hands at camel racing. Anyway, just before leaving camp, I noticed a big pile of meat in our driver Miji’s ger. I asked him if it was a horse, and he replied that it was a camel. I joked and asked if it was the camel that finished last in the race. I don’t believe he was joking when he said that it was… Life can be hard out here in the Gobi, but I will miss it nonetheless.


Örjan Johansson is a Ph.D. student at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU). He is the field scientist in our Long Term Ecological Study about snow leopards in South Gobi, Mongolia. Örjan’s groundbreaking research is generously supported by Nordens Ark Zoo in Bohuslän, Sweden, and by Kolmården Zoo, in Norrköping, Sweden.

This study is a joint project of PANTHERA, Snow Leopard Trust and Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation in cooperation with the Mongolia Ministry of Nature, Environment and Tourism, and the Mongolia Academy of Sciences.


  1. One correction: Ariun did not kill a “wild horse”. The only wild horses in Mongolia are takhi/Przewalski’s horse/P-horses. They are in only three locations that I’m currently aware of: Hustai National Park, Khomiin Tal in Zavkhan Aimag and Takhiin Tal, which is far to the west of where you are in the Tost Mountains, if I understand correctly where your study has been taking place. What he killed was undoubtedly a stray domestic Mongol horse belonging to a local herder. Some of them look very much like takhi with a similar color, eye rings, dorsal stripes and carpal/tarpal leg stripes because they have takhi blood in their ancestry. The herders also clip the manes of the geldings and also sometimes the mares, so they can look like they have upright takhi manes. I think this is very important distinction to make since takhi are the only surviving species of true genetically wild horse and are an endangered species with only around 2000 in existence. Now….if in fact Ariun was sitting on a takhi, that would be very big news indeed.

    1. Dear Susan, thank you for this remark! We’ll have to check back with Orjan to see if he was able to identify the horse. But our study is indeed taking place in the Tost Mountains, so you are most likely right about the horse not being genetically wild.

  2. Orjan, would be very interested in your paper. I am an animal behaviorist (dogs and cats at the moment) and I have a very strong interest in both wild and domestic cats.

  3. Fascinating experience. I hope it was pleasurable and productive, and best of luck in helping maintain a stable population of these magnificent animals.

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