The South Gobi, one of the world’s great deserts, does not readily evoke snow leopards. Camels, sure. And endless stretches of dusty gray rocks and pale yellow sand, with a few straw-colored bushes strewn in here and there. And yet, these rare cats have carved out a unique niche for themselves in this harsh, barren landscape.
Situated just miles from the Chinese border, the Tost Mountains form a natural bridge between two of Mongolia’s largest protected areas; the Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park to the Northeast, and the Great Gobi A Strictly Protected Area to the Southwest. Both of these long-established reserves are home to snow leopards, but also to the rare Gobi bear (Great Gobi A), Bactrian camel, lammergeier, wild ass, ibex and argali.
In 2008, the Snow Leopard Trust and Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation Mongolia selected Tost as the site for their long-term study of snow leopards and their ecology – a decision that would prove fateful almost a decade later.
The Gobi has traditionally been inhabited by nomadic herder communities who move their sheep, goats and camels between the flat steppes and the mountains that rise out of the landscape like islands.
A majority of people living in this sparsely populated part of the world have maintained this lifestyle despite its hardships, living off and in relative harmony with nature – if not without conflicts, for instance due to snow leopard predation on livestock.
In recent years, however, these traditional lifestyles have increasingly been disrupted in the Gobi because of mining. “The ground here is rich in coal, copper and other valuable minerals, and so mining has become a major source of revenue for Mongolia. It’s the engine of the country’s economy”, says Bayara Agvaantseren, the Snow Leopard Trust’s Mongolia Program Director. “But these extractive industries have also taken a toll on the environment, disrupting wildlife and the lives of rural herders. Valuable pasture, water sources and habitat have been destroyed – with little regard for the future of people or animals.”
Bayara has dedicated most of her career to helping the nomadic herders of the Gobi improve their livelihoods through initiatives such as a handicrafts program, livestock insurance or improved corrals to protect their animals from predation. The snow leopards Bayara and her colleagues intended to protect were often more of a nuisance to these herders – but they agreed to coexist with the cat.
And when it came to protecting Tost from the threat of mining, it was the herding community that helped Bayara out. “When we realized the danger this snow leopard habitat was in, local herders immediately agreed to join the fight to make Tost a Protected Area”, she says. “The herders realized that their entire way of life was at risk”, Bayara said, “and they recognized that the snow leopard was their biggest ally in this fight”.
Drawing from years of systematic camera trap studies, GPS tracking of snow leopards and surveys of the area’s prey population, Bayara and the Snow Leopard Trust could show that Tost was not only home to a stable, thriving, breeding snow leopard population, but that it also served as a potential link between Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park and Great Gobi A Strictly Protected Area.
“We had seen and tracked cats migrate out of Tost, across the steppe and into the Nemegt Mountains, in Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park”, Bayara says. “And we’d been able to document several cub births each year of our study, which proved that Tost wasn’t just a snow leopard habitat, but a breeding ground for these cats.”
In 2013, the Mongolian government had identified the South Gobi – including Gurvansaikhan, Great Gobi A and Tost – as a priority landscape for snow leopard conservation under the Global Snow Leopard & Ecosystem Protection Program (GSLEP) – and yet, the spectre of mining loomed over the area. It was only when Bayara and her allies from the local herding community brought members of parliament to Tost that things began to shift.
Two female MPs introduced legislature to protect the entire mountain range and revoke all mining licenses issues previously. Armed with the data Bayara and her colleagues had collected about Tost’s snow leopards, these lawmakers began building a strong coalition – and in April 2016, an overwhelming majority of Mongolia’s parliamentarians voted to approve the proposal, making Tost an official State Nature Reserve.
For the herding community, this landmark decision meant that their way of life was secure. For Bayara, it brought relief, as the possible destruction of a key snow leopard habitat was averted. However, it’s only the beginning of a larger success story.
“Tost today is a laboratory for snow leopard research. We continue to learn more about these cats and their ecosystem each year, as we expand camera trapping and continue with the collaring and GPS tracking study started 10 years ago. Slowly, Tost’s snow leopards are helping us understand the secrets of an entire species”, Bayara says. “Thanks to this study, we now have a much better understanding of how snow leopards use space, how large their home ranges are and how they interact”.
Bayara is excited about what’s next: “Last year, we’ve entered a new phase of the study: our team not only collared several cats, but also their primary prey, Asiatic ibex and a number of domestic sheep and goats. We’re grateful to the Mongolian Ministry of Environment for granting us the permits to continue and expand this crucial research. The data we hope to gain in this next phase will give us completely new insights into the dynamics between predator, prey and domestic livestock in the landscape.”
Bayara also continues to strengthen protective measures that help keep Tost’s wildlife safe. “We’re working with government rangers as well as local volunteers; training them to effectively patrol and monitor the Nature Reserve. And we’re expanding our community-based conservation programs such as livestock insurance and corral improvements. This helps herders tolerate the predator in their midst, and continue to live peacefully side by side with snow leopards.”