Ever since Surenkhuu Luvsan can remember, wildlife meant trouble for her herding community in Mongolia’s Tost Mountains, a part of the remote Gobi Desert. Snow leopards were preying on the community’s livestock, causing massive damage and fear. As a result, Surenkhuu says, the cats were persecuted in retaliation, or to prevent further killings. “We did not like these cats at all”, she recalls.
“I used to sleep in my livestock holding pen to try and protect my livestock”, says Munkhjargal, another local herder, who over the years, lost dozens of sheep and goats to snow leopard attacks.
Munkhjargal never killed a cat in retaliation himself, but says he had begun thinking about it. For many of his neighbors, it didn’t stop at just thinking.
To make matters worse, by 2009, the entire Tost area was under threat from mining. Massive coal and copper mines had sprung up nearby, and the mountains of Tost were designated for mining exploration as well. This development promised to bring in some jobs, but also threatened the community’s way of life, and threatened to destroy their pastures. Overall, things weren’t looking great.
Fast forward to 2017, and the future of Tost, its people and its snow leopards is looking decidedly brighter – largely thanks to Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation (SLCF), a Mongolian grassroots NGO dedicated to protecting its namesake cat through local community welfare and partnerships.
Today, the Tost ecosystem is a State Nature Reserve, and the local community is actively engaged in conserving snow leopards, and sustainably using natural resources for their livelihoods.
“This exceptional grassroots organization, led by skilled, passionate Mongolian women, has changed the outlook for snow leopards in the Gobi and in Mongolia in general”, says Charu Mishra, the Snow Leopard Trust’s Science & Conservation Director. “It’s been an honor and a joy to have been by their side as they strive to change the world into a better place for humanity and for nature.”
Creating Lasting Change
Change didn’t come overnight. It took almost two decades of tireless conservation work.
In the late 1990s, conservationists first started partnering with local communities in Tost to try and ease human-wildlife conflicts and protect snow leopards. The work, initiated by the Seattle-based Snow Leopard Trust, was led by Bayarjargal (Bayara) Agvaantseren; a teacher who joined the Trust as an assistant and translator for their Mongolia program.
Bayara knew these communities well, and found it easy to empathize with the local herders. She learned that they lacked alternative sources of income and depended almost entirely on their livestock, which made it hard to tolerate attacks on livestock by snow leopards.
To help address this issue, Bayara and the Snow Leopard Trust’s team developed the idea of Snow Leopard Enterprises. This program would train herders to use their limited natural resources – mainly unprocessed wool from sheep, goats and camels – to produce handicrafts to be sold to conservation-minded people all over the world.
For the local community, Snow Leopard Enterprises created a much-needed and stable source of additional income. For the snow leopards, it meant a safer future: as part of Snow Leopard Enterprises, local communities agree not to hunt snow leopards or their prey species, and not to retaliate if a cat should attack their livestock. Financial incentives in the form of annual bonuses encourage compliance.
Over the next decade, the program grew from a handful of participants to more than a dozen communities. In 2007, Bayara and the Snow Leopard Trust decided it was time to establish a local organization to take conservation activities in Mongolia forward. Together, they founded the Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation Mongolia (SLCF), with Bayara as its director.
“It was a smooth transition”, Bayara recalls. “All our local staff members remained with the new organization, and we continued our work, and the Snow Leopard Trust supported us financially and strategically.”
Snow Leopard Enterprises immediately became SLCF’s flagship program. Retaliatory killing of snow leopards has all but ceased in the areas of SLE operation. Incomes of participating families have grown by 40%. More than $1 million worth of handicrafts have been purchased by supporters around the world.
But the effects of Snow Leopard Enterprises don’t stop there. The program has transformed attitudes toward snow leopards among the herders of Tost, as it has for herders of many other snow leopard habitats of Mongolia, and, indeed, other snow leopard habitats of Asia. It has also empowered the communities to take further action for conservation.
Take Surenkhuu Luvsan for example. Despite her initial skepticism, she was one of Tost’s pioneer participants in Snow Leopard Enterprises, joining the program in 2000. Thanks to her talent and determination, Surenkhuu quickly became a community leader, helping to train and recruit other participants. Through her work, she has grown into a local conservation champion and advocate who has a deep understanding of how wildlife, nature and people influence each other.
“Snow Leopard Enterprises is a great way to start engaging with a community”, says Nadia Mijiddorj, the Education Program Manager for SLCF. “It helps build mutual trust and a solid basis for a long-term, multi-faceted partnership. Local people see their collaboration with SLCF as an opportunity to enhance their skills and to create social networks through snow leopard conservation that empower them to act sustainably in the future.”
Together with her growing local team, Bayara, Nadia and their colleagues have expanded SLCF’s community conservation programs to include livestock insurance as well as predator-proof corrals – two ideas that help reduce conflicts between the interests of herders and those of conservationists.
His new fenced-in corral has certainly changed Munkhjargal’s life, and his outlook on snow leopards: ““I no longer fear for my animals or myself. I sleep in my ger, where it’s warm and comfortable. The snow leopard doesn’t bother me anymore.”
A Snow Leopard Stronghold Under Threat
In 2009, Bayara and her team realized that all of Tost Mountain was destined to be opened up to mining. “The government had issued mining licenses covering the entire area”, Bayara recalls. “Had companies started extracting minerals there, all the grasslands, where both livestock and natural snow leopard prey graze, would have been lost.”
This is when SLCF’s relationship with the community of Tost became extremely valuable. “At a community meeting, we informed the community about the mining licenses and introduced the idea of protecting the land.
Local herders and government officials in Tost quickly understood how mining was not just threatening the snow leopard, but their entire way of life – and how protecting the ecosystem could protect their livelihoods, culture, and social systems”, says Purevjav (Puji) Lkhagvajav, SLCF’s Research and Monitoring Manager, who works very closely with community members in Tost.
The Tost community enthusiastically picked up the cause and took it forward – while Bayara, Puji and the rest of the team supported them by providing data, setting up meetings with lawyers, experts and activists, and coordinating the effort.
Surenkhuu Luvsan, the SLE community leader, again played a key role in this process. She organized a local petition among the herders of Tost, and led discussions with the local government office on behalf of her fellow community members.
Bayara, Surenkhuu and other local leaders soon found more champions for the cause in the national parliament, which helped build momentum – and after months of joint effort, the Mineral Resources Authority of Mongolia finally accepted the local government’s application to declare the Tost Mountains a locally Protected Area in October 2010. It was the lowest protection status under Mongolian law, but it was a key first step.
This in theory temporarily halted mining expansions – licenses would expire, and no new ones would be given out. But of course, things aren’t ever that simple: “We soon realized that the mining companies would just sell expiring licenses to one another, which gave them new life, so to speak”, Bayara explains. Tost needed to become a State Nature Reserve – a more official, much stronger protection status, which would protect it from mining and other forms of damaging land uses, while allowing sustainable use of the pastures by the local community.
The extraction of natural resources is a major part of Mongolia’s economy, and mining interests in the country are powerful and influential. “We knew the odds were stacked against us”, Bayara says.
Regardless, the SLCF team continued to work with the local community toward their ultimate goal – securing Tost Mountain as a healthy ecosystem for people and wildlife alike. They built relationships, pleaded their case with politicians, journalists, business leaders, legal experts, fellow conservationists and the Mongolian public. They assembled data, studied the law, gave countless interviews and appeared on national TV. “It was hard, but also educative. We all gained a lot of new skills in this process”, Puji remembers.
From Tragedy to Triumph
In 2009, a young Mongolian student named Lkhagvasumberel “Sumbe” Tumursukh had joined our field team in the South Gobi to assist with camera trap work. His passion for wildlife and his talent as a field researcher immediately stood out, and he was soon hired as a full-time Research Associate with SLCF, helping to manage the long-term snow leopard study the organization was conducting in Tost with the Snow Leopard Trust and other partners.
Coming from a family with deep connections with nature, Sumbe was a natural with all the new tasks he undertook. He quickly became an indispensable member of SLCF’s team, helping with everything from collaring snow leopards to setting up and collecting camera traps. He also frequently engaged with local community members as well as miners working in the area, raising awareness for snow leopards and advocating for their protection.
Sumbe’s passion is perhaps best illustrated by a picture: when water holes in the South Gobi froze over during a harsh winter, Sumbe carried several hundred pounds of ice up the mountain, so the animals would have enough to drink.
In late 2015, Sumbe suddenly disappeared. A few days later, he was found dead, at age 27. Police investigated and eventually ruled his death a suicide, but his family and local activists maintain that he was the victim of a crime.
Sumbe had been attacked a few times in previous years by unknown assailants, and had received threats related to his work.
We do not know what happened to Sumbe, and, sadly, we may never find out. In Sumbe, Bayara and her team lost a friend and family member, a delightful colleague, and a rising young star of Mongolian conservation. His loss is something we will never get over.
The tragedy made Bayara and her team’s resolve even stronger. They had been fighting for Tost for its people and for its snow leopards. Now they had to win the fight, especially for Sumbe, who had dedicated his life to protecting snow leopards and ibex of Tost mountains.
Sumbe’s death triggered intense media attention in Mongolia, and led to what can only be described as a grassroots campaign that swept the country. Leading politician and journalists got involved, ordinary citizens sent hundreds and thousands of letters, a documentary film was shot – and suddenly, what had been a small, local issue for years became national front-page news, with public opinion shifting in favor of conservation.
Finally, in April 2016, Bayara and her team got their big breakthrough! The proposal for Tost Mountains to be made a State Nature Reserve was put to vote in the National Parliament of Mongolia. “We followed the debate online and held our breaths”, Bayara says. When the votes came in, the team erupted in celebration!
80% of all deputies had voted in favor, only 20% were against it. Tost had officially been declared a State Nature Reserve!
“While the political victory in favor of snow leopards and local people was tremendous, our work in Tost has really just begun”, Bayara says. “We’re working with the local community and authorities to create a management plan for the new Nature Reserve, which will define things such as grazing rights, access, etc. We’ll also help train and equip park rangers to patrol the area and assist in monitoring wildlife. We want to set up a model protected area for snow leopards that is co-managed by local people, conservationists, and the government.”
“The last 10 years have been an incredible experience for all of us. I’m personally very proud of my team and the amazing work they’ve done. But we also need to look to the future. My goal is to further strengthen our team and build even more capacity, so that SLCF can continue to create positive change for snow leopards and the communities that share their habitat.”
“Bayara is an inspiration to me and to hundreds of thousands of Mongolians who are concerned about the wellbeing of both people and nature. What she and her team at Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation have achieved not only gives me hope for the future of the snow leopard, but for the future of our planet”, says Charu Mishra.