Meet Zaya and her flying cub!
Zaya is a female snow leopard that our team is studying in the Zoolon Mountains of Mongolia’s Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park. She is among 13-16 snow leopards identified across these mountains through our Long Term Ecological Study (LTES), which began in the mountains of Tost in 2008. Zoolon is part of a continuous chain of mountains in the South Gobi, just north of Tost. Our team first observed Zaya during our camera survey in 2017 when she was traveling with two subadult cubs that were born in the spring of 2016.
Soon after this photograph was taken, these two subadult cubs dispersed from their mother to find their own home range. In 2018, we photographed Zaya again—this time with a new playful cub, who you can see has clearly mastered the signature snow leopard skill of leaping into the air.
Unfortunately, these mountains have not always been a safe playground for snow leopard cubs.
In 2016, our Mongolia team found evidence of illegal mining activity by so-called ‘ninja miners,’ who conduct small-scale, unauthorized mining for gold and other minerals. The miners earned this nickname because the green panning bowls slung over their shoulders and carried on their backs resembling the infamous Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Small-scale illegal mining is believed to be increasing, and is a threat to the herding culture and environment in the Gobi and other parts of Mongolia.
Mongolia team member Nadia Mijiddorj is conducting research in the South Gobi to understand how herders are adapting to wider socio-economic and environmental forces, such as climate change. Her in-depth conversations with local communities revealed how herders sometimes engage in ninja mining during difficult times.
One of the interviewees told Nadia, “Ninja mining is not a fun job, but you have to do it sometimes in order to survive. I lost most of my livestock during one harsh winter and there were few other options to make a living.” Nadia also noted that many different factors affect the decision to engage in ninja mining. Some may seek alternatives to livestock herding because weather conditions are too harsh. Others may seek additional income so they can move their families to urban areas for schooling and other services.
We work alongside SLCF Mongolia to mitigate engagement in ninja mining by helping communities become more resilient to changes in their environment. Community-based conservation programs, such as livestock insurance, predator-proof corrals, and Snow Leopard Enterprises, are important in reducing the need to engage in ninja mining. These programs help diminish livestock losses and provide alternative incomes for herding families. We also partner with community rangers to keep protected areas of land safe from potential threats to snow leopards.
Community-based conservation plays a vital role in saving snow leopards (like Zaya and her cubs) from the threat of mining. Long-term monitoring of wild snow leopards and cubs is also invaluable to our conservation efforts. The continuing study in Mongolia provides unprecedented information on litter size, cub survival, breeding intervals, and disbursement patterns. Zaya is just one of the Gobi snow leopards that has taught us so much about the species’ ecology.
Zaya’s cubs also provide us with a symbol of hope—a sign that future generations of snow leopards will be able to safely leap around their habitat. As our long-term study progresses with your support, we look forward to bringing you more information about these wonder cubs from the Gobi.