Snow leopards are one of the world’s most beautiful creatures and also one of the most elusive. Being both secretive and well camouflaged, it is almost impossible to spot them in the wild. This summer, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) “caught” its first snow leopards on film, bringing us another step closer to better understanding these mysterious cats.
Researchers believe there are 3,500 to 7,000 snow leopards (Panthera uncia) left in the world, and Mongolia is home to the second largest population of these endangered wild cats. Approximately 1,000 snow leopards are scattered throughout 40,000 square miles of mountainous terrain in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert and far western rangelands.
The arid Bumbat Mountains in western Mongolia is home to a number of snow leopards, and in June 2016, TNC installed 46 camera traps to find out where they congregate and determine their population size. By August 2016, more than 58,000 photos and videos were taken, with 213 capturing snow leopards.
Snow leopards face numerous threats, from poaching for illegal trade and habitat loss to conflicts with local herders. Argali (mountain sheep) and ibex are the top prey for snow leopards, but due to hunting and habitat loss from mining, their population in the wild is in decline. As a result, snow leopards are increasingly supplementing their diets with domestic sheep and goats that herders bring to graze in the mountains. And in turn, herders might kill snow leopards to prevent against future losses. “There are more herders with bigger herds of livestock causing overgrazing,” says Bayarjargal (Bayar) Yunden, Director of Science with The Nature Conservancy’s Mongolia program. “The snow leopards are also competing for land as these bigger herds move into the snow leopard’s range,” says Bayar. TNC is working to protect snow leopards and their habitats while benefiting local herder communities and reducing conflicts between the two. For example, we’re helping local herders develop a rangeland management program that addresses overgrazing and inefficient water use.
The South Gobi Desert is also an important snow leopard habitat. This same area has many large mines that, if unchecked and poorly planned, will fragment Mongolia’s landscapes, impede wildlife movement, pollute critical water sources and undermine herders’ traditional way of life. In addition, there are two national protected areas within the Tost Mountains — long considered by conservation groups to be one of the Gobi’s highest priority ecosystems. Adjacent to these parks is an approximately 2-million-acre site that, if protected, would form one of the largest protected snow leopard habitats in the world. In April 2016, with strong local community and NGO support, the Mongolian Parliament approved this site, called Tost Uul, as a new national protected area that permanently prevents mining, protects snow leopards and allows for local herders use for their livelihoods.
Conservation success often rests on local support for conservation, and protected areas will survive only if they are seen to be of value, in the widest sense, to the nation as a whole and to local people in particular. In conservation history, protected areas can be problematic for communities. And in a country where approximately 40 percent of the people are nomadic herders who depend on access to pasture lands this could be a problem.
“In western Mongolia, we are working with communities to actively engage them in conservation by showing them the benefits to their livelihoods and way of life,” says Gankhuyag (Gaana) Balbar, a project officer who works with communities for TNC in Mongolia. “If herders want to increase their income, they need to embrace sustainable grassland management. The community’s health is dependent on the health of their natural resources. Since herders are big users of natural resources, they have to be responsible stewards of their land,” says Gaana.
“When we include communities in the conservation planning, they are really interested to protect their pastureland,” said Tuguldur (Tuugii) Enkhtsetseg, TNC’s field biologist in Mongolia. “Without working together with locals, we will never achieve long-lasting conservation results, and we believe engaging with people is the next step of our conservation work.”
Mongolia is changing and developing. Like much of the world, it is learning new rules of living with an increasing population of both people and animals and managing the inevitable conflicts that arise. Historically, herders were constantly moving, and they are ingrained to believe that the whole country is theirs to roam. For 2000 years, there were around one million people in Mongolia but that population has risen to three million, while livestock populations have soared from 30 million to 70 million animals in the past few decades. To sustainably balance the needs of people, wildlife and nature, Mongolia’s herders — like all of us around the world — are faced with the increasing imperative to act more responsibility and take care of our planet.
For more information visit The Nature Conservancy’s website.
Photos credits - Eric Kilby and The Nature Conservancy