Sustainability Projects

Finding the elusive cat

Mongolian mountains foggy

First more or less serious search for the snow leopard I did when I was still working for the governmental agency Juulchin in early 1990s. An exclusive trip we could offer to some potential clients featuring the snow leopard in the wilds of Mongolia. I contacted Dr. Bold, a newly acquired “friend”, who was one of the leading ornithologists in Mongolia and asked if he ever saw a snow leopard and whether there is a biologist who could tell me about them and possibly work with us on a potential trip. According to him, there was no biologist who was studying just the snow leopards, but pointed me towards a younger colleague of his who did some research in the past. With growing anticipation, I have arranged for a meeting with Dr. Amarsanaa to discuss the topic at length.

My disappointment was hard to describe. After working in the field of wildlife biology for 10+ years, my guest never saw one in real life! With a heavy heart I had to drop the idea for a while…

The idea though never left the back of my mind and in 2016 I was able to invest further into the project. With help of a long time friend, Tumen I scouted few areas in the Gobi to see if we could help the conservation efforts there and at the same time learn about possibility of developing snow leopard trips. During the trip we have met various people, saw the habitat, built couple of blinds and searched for the cats. Not much luck on that trip, but the camera traps proved their existence! Now it was up to us to figure out the logistics and hammer out the details.

The search went on and in November 2017 we have invested in another scouting trip in western Mongolia, where my colleagues have covered hundred kilometers and have spent numerous hours searching through several of the ranges a few months earlier and have narrowed down the search into this particular mountain.

Day 1: The flight from UB landed in Hovd city quite late in the day, so we decided just to stock up for our early departure next day. In addition to the time factor our local guide was somewhat un-willing to start the trip on Tuesday.

Day 2: We have set out with crack of dawn and were riding up the mountain range with first sun rays hitting the southern slopes. Along the way we have seen some Saiga and Goitered gazelle running across the plains and disappearing in the hills ahead of us.

Our local guide had 2 gers set up for our scouting mission and after having some hot tea we drove right into the mountains. The first thing we saw going over a ridge was a family moving into the mountains into their wintering place using camels. It is a hard to navigate this area in a vehicle, and it becomes impossible for cars to pass with the first fall of snow.

Unlike the classic Mongolian image of livestock filling the steppes, here we saw them pasturing along the mountain tops! I always thought that sheep belong to the plains, but I guess  not! We checked on one big valley not far from our camp site. It was great to get some exercise and cold crisp winter air after UB pollution, but as the day wined down no cats!

Day 3: Second day in the mountains also was great with the sunrise in the mountains, lots of Ibex and few Argali sheep. This time of the year small number of the local herder families move into these narrow valleys looking for better pastures. Despite the dangerous neighborhood with snow leopards (according to WWF statistics some 20-25 leopards live in this particular range) herders move in and live throughout the winter months herding their livestock, keeping a close eye on them. While the day went by really fast with meeting the herder and going through more magnificent valleys we have not been able to spot any of the leopards.

That night, sometime after dinner when we were reciting stories of these magnificent animals and their encounters with locals one of the herders we stopped by earlier that day called and said he just lost a sheep to a snow leopard. He can see it but afraid to get any closer…we were tempted to rush back into the mountains, but after some joint discussion we have decided to start before dawn next day. The idea was to climb the opposite side of the valley and look at the carcass across the valley.

After these exciting news no one could really sleep and after few hours spent between sleeping and waking up we set off towards the herder ger around 4:30 am.

Day 4: Our host, a family of newlyweds were spending their first winter in the high mountains and were the first family in this valley to lose a sheep to Iijgai this year, as locals call the snow leopard here. Head of the family Puujii has a newborn son of just 6 months of age.

As we set out to climb, we distinctly heard a roar and stopped for few minutes to listen to where the roar was coming from. Because it was for the first time for me, I thought it was a dog squealing, but after listening more carefully was confident it was something different.  It took us about an hour to climb half way up the slope, when we stopped to rest on a rocky outcrop. The daylight was just breaking and we have just located the remains of the sheep, when our local helper has spotted the leopard, slowly walking away from the carcass as we apparently spooked it. In a haste of trying to operate a camera and look through the binoculars I was able to snap couple images through the scope. But more than anything I loved looking at the snow leopard without trying to take a picture or play with the settings of the camera.

Here it was, the true owner of this valley, walking slowly away, stopping from time to time before disappearing beyond the rocky ridge.

We made another attempt of laying our eyes on it by getting onto the next ridge and while scoping the opposite slope we saw an ibex going across the same exact spot where just 10 minutes earlier the snow leopard has stopped to look at us for the last time.

Here it was the circle of life – death of one is life for another! When we came down from the ridge our welcoming hostess had some hot tea and Mongolian stir-fried noodles ready – a welcome end to a successful morning!

We talked about potential of starting a SHEEP for a SHEEP project, where animals killed by the snow leopard are replaced by a common fund, where money from tourist dollar makes up the income. One way or another we as a country and community need to figure out a sustainable way of protecting these magnificent animals, which are truly rare and Mongolia is blessed with some 1,500-2,000 of them all along the Altai Mountain range.

Day 5: As the mission was accomplished we have headed home with much delight and full of plans for the next season.

Day 5: As the mission was accomplished we have headed home with much delight and full of plans for the next season.