In Search of the Mountain Ghost

by Katey Duffey

Understanding a Culture to Protect an Iconic Predator

Bounding along the Mongolian steppe in a Soviet Russia era van, it is clear how this vast, virtually uninhabited land came to be known as the “Land of Blue Sky”. In every direction, as far as the eye can see, a bright blue, cloudless sky blends into the horizon. Eagles, buzzards and vultures hover on thermals or rest on the ground, searching for a meal from the countless rodents whose burrows turn the plains into Swiss cheese. As my team from the Mongolian Academy of Sciences and Irbis (snow leopard) Mongolia Center traverse this wild environment, the senior biologist, Dr. Bariushaa Munkhtsog, points out various landmarks and sacred places. Ovoo, spiritual monuments made of piled rocks and covered in blue rags, are common. We stop at one of these monuments to pay respect to the gods of the land and to ask for good luck for our expedition by walking three times in a clockwise direction around it and tossing rocks onto the pile as an offering. Being invited to participate in some of the traditional rituals is truly an honor for me. Most importantly, it gives me a more thorough understanding of the culture in which I have immersed myself for the sake of studying one of the planet’s rarest cat species, the snow leopard. To save a species, you must first understand the human culture in which it lives.

Buddhism and Shamanism are dominant beliefs in Mongolia that form unbreakable connections between this resilient wilderness and its people. From the mountains that dominate the horizon to the creatures who thrive in this harsh land, everything is sacred. Snow leopards especially are highly revered in the culture. Evidence of this can be seen outside temples, which are guarded by “snow lion” statues, derived from snow leopards. The snow lion symbolizes strength, fearlessness, happiness, a clear mind, and are the protectors of Buddha.

Image by Batkhuyag – Otgontenger SPA

The gorgeous, endangered snow leopard is an icon of some of the highest and most remote places in the world throughout 12 range countries. Its total wild population is roughly estimated between 4,000-7,000 individuals. Mongolia is home to the second highest population with 1,000-1,500 cats. The presence of snow leopards is a strong indicator of a healthy mountain ecosystem. They are a “keystone species”. However, snow leopards are increasingly threatened, directly and indirectly, by the people who have held the traditional belief that to kill one of these sacred predators is bad luck. The greatest of these threats are habitat degradation, retribution killing after livestock are attacked, and poaching for the traditional medicine trade.

At least half of Mongolia’s population is fully dependent on livestock for meat and wool products. As the population grows, so does that of domestic herds. Overgrazing from millions of free-ranging livestock has become a serious ecological issue. The landscape bares the signs of overgrazing with tracks, dried manure, and sun-bleached remains of domestic animals scattered across the steppe in every direction. Livestock significantly outnumbers wild prey species. Sightings of wild ungulates seem just as difficult to come by as finding signs of the elusive snow leopard. I considered myself lucky to catch a fleeting glimpse of a herd of gazelle, leaping out of sight in the far distance, their tan hides appearing as mere specks on the plain. Ibex, one of the snow leopard’s main prey species, are also hard to encounter. Even the steep, rocky slopes the ibex are adapted for are not safe from the appetites of meandering herds of goats, sheep, yaks and horses.

As a result of too many domestic animals competing with wild prey species for food, herds graze within closer range of snow leopard habitat, making depredation inevitable. Winter camps of nomadic herders are set right against the side of a mountain, offering protection from the extreme freezing weather. Unfortunately, it also offers a convenient route for a snow leopard to climb down to take its pick from an improperly guarded or corralled herd. Often, many animals may be killed within a corral when a snow leopard becomes confused from the confinement. These campsites can be spotted as dark patches at the base of a slope during other parts of the year, acting as a visual reminder that this seemingly wild environment shares its resources with humans at all times. A growing concern is that the retribution killing of snow leopards by angry herders will further threaten the already precarious existence of the “ghost of the mountain”.

In order to evaluate what kind of impact habitat degradation from overgrazing is having on snow leopards, biologists must first locate signs of the cats, obtain genetic data to determine population densities, and determine the range of the cats in an area. This is no easy task considering that snow leopards live at altitudes of 3,000m- 5,400m, can have home ranges of up to 1,000km2, and leave signs of their residence around steep cliffs and rocky outcrops.

Recon Mission: Finding Snow Leopard Signs and Interviewing Herders

“Kate! Snow leopard!” The sound of my teammate’s voice carries over the rapid pounding of my heart as I search for signs of the rare cat while my body adjusts to an elevation 3,000m higher than where I come from. I make a mental note to not force myself to keep up with those who grew up in this habitat as they nimbly ascend the mountainside like ibex. A bit out of breath, I make it to where my teammate is pointing. Sure enough, tucked under a sheltering rock ledge, there is a pile of scat. Snow leopard scat! And based on our reactions, one would think we had won the lottery…

Otgontenger Strictly Protected Area (SPA) is located within the Zavkhan province of Western Mongolia, in the Khangai Mountains. The area encompasses 1,000km2 and is best known for the country’s most sacred mountain, Otgon Tenger Uul, and its diversity of ecosystems. For a nature enthusiast, Otgontenger SPA has it all: mountains, steppe, forests, lakes, rivers, marshes, sand dunes, and even hot springs! With such an array of habitats, it should come as no surprise that this locality is home to a large variety of biodiversity, including several endangered species. It is a biological wonderland!

Otgontenger_regionSimilar to other regions, livestock depredation by snow leopards is a concern to nomadic herders. While the populations of these cats and economic impact of livestock losses has been investigated in many other major ranges such as the South Gobi, Trans-Altai Gobi and the Northern Altai Mountains, no data has been collected in Otgontenger or surrounding areas. From mid-June-mid-July of 2014, my team rambled along in our trusty van from site to site, gathering dozens of scat samples, recording scratch marks found on rocks and trees, and places where we found urine spray. We also set up several camera traps in hopes of catching images of our “phantom quarry” and its prey species. This process involves knowledge of snow leopard behavior and habits. To find a snow leopard, you have to think like a snow leopard. That means sometimes crawling on all fours to set up a camera trap at the right level or delicately stalking across a ridge-line wondering where you would relieve yourself if you were a snow leopard.

Another aspect of my team’s project was interviewing local herders to acquire information on livestock losses and attitudes toward snow leopards vs. wolves (the other predatory threat to livestock). How do you find a nomadic settlement? First, find a herd of goats, sheep or yaks. Second, drive around that area until you spot riders watching the herd or until you come across gers, the traditional nomadic housing of the pastoralists. Once you actually locate a ger which has seemed almost as elusive as the cats themselves, make sure to yell “Nokhoi Khoi” (“Hold the dog!”), even if there is no guard dog(s). Not only is this more polite than knocking on a ger flap or door, but it also allows a chance for the host to gain control of any dog(s) present. Finally, after greetings and an explanation of the purpose of your visit, be ready to experience true Mongolian hospitality.

tribespeople_interviewInterviewing these nomadic people is not as simple as asking questions, recording responses, and leaving. With each family we visited we were invited into the home to socialize, sample homemade soup of goat or yak meat in noodles, try yogurt products made from goat or yak milk, and get our fill of biscuits spread with fresh churned goat or yak butter. To wash it all down, we would be given bowls of rich, hot milk tea, also made from, you guessed it, goat or yak milk! More often than not, cups of vodka would be passed around, as well as a snuff bottle. Of course, the younger participants amongst us would have needed to skip over the “vodka” portion of the day, which almost inevitably lead to them asking “where to get a fake id from” because they just couldn’t live with the fact that they couldn’t try a bit of vodka when it was passed to them. Oh to be young again! Out of courtesy though (and to those who can), it is recommended to try it all, or at least pretend to, which ended up being the case for me after visiting several families in one day.

Stomachs full of heavy carbs, dairy and meat, the questionnaire could begin. Having previous experience studying wolves and conducting coyote coexistence outreach in the States, I expected responses toward snow leopards to be negative. Surprisingly, most of the herders acknowledged the importance of these cats in their environment, despite losing livestock to them. Many herders admitted, “The snow leopards have just as much right to the land as the people. It is the people’s responsibility to take better care of their animals.” One herder showed us a goat that actually survived an attack by a snow leopard. It had large scars on its neck and face, and tattered ears. Even this herder, who was annoyed about the incident, did not blame the cat and said, “We must either learn to live with them or move.” However, not everyone shares these positive attitudes toward coexistence, leading to incidences of retribution killing.

Preserving Livelihoods and Protecting Snow Leopards

“True conservation is all about fashioning human attitudes and activities that foster a working relationship with nature.” ~Rene Dubos

The root of any successful conservation effort begins with developing a relationship with the local people. From far across continents or oceans, it is easy for many of us to suggest certain areas should just be suddenly blocked off completely so local people, who have lived off the land for centuries, can no longer utilize resources. However, preserving the culture of these peoples is just as important as collecting information on a threatened species. A crucial aspect toward the development of conservation plans in a community is to obtain public attitudes and values. Wildlife officials need this baseline data in order to work with a community, instead of against it. In instances where public attitudes are considered, such as with the implementation of predator coexistence programs, efforts are most prosperous.

Currently, the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, Irbis Mongolia Center, and Snow Leopard Conservancy are working together to help decrease conflicts between predators and herders. They are doing this, not by preventing them from raising their livestock around snow leopard habitat, but by educating communities on responsible livestock husbandry methods and sustainable land use. One of the main goals of these partner organizations is to persuade local people that snow leopards are worth more alive than dead. To help raise money for communities, handicrafts made from wool are created and sold by herder women. Funds from these products go directly back to the community to assist in predator friendly livestock husbandry and wildlife conservation.

Electronic devices such as Predator Guard, that emit a solar powered flashing light, are also being tested where livestock graze. These devices are mounted on bushes or fence posts, and will flash during the night to scare away predators. In the areas where the predator deterrents were tested within Baga Bogd Mountain, no livestock have been killed by snow leopards. Another electronic predator deterrent that is being successfully used by the Snow Leopard Conservancy in other regions and will be tested more in Mongolia, are FoxLights.

While listening to the stories herders shared about their encounters with snow leopards, I felt a greater connection to them. Were they irritated about losing livestock, their only source of income, to the cats? Yes. Did they have a right to be, especially since there are no government compensation programs where they are? You bet! I originally began my journey into Mongolia with the intent of studying and protecting snow leopards. Yet, the herders’ passion for their traditional way of life, and their willingness to do what is necessary to maintain a harmony with the land, fueled a stronger desire to do whatever I could to help them as well.

By using the information gathered during my team’s recon mission, a movement to work with the local communities to protect their livestock, while studying an unknown population of snow leopards, has been initiated. Actions include: improving corrals by predator proofing them, training park staff and community members on the use of camera traps and electronic predator deterrents, and implementing capacity building for community members. Eco-tours, which will allow tourists to explore select snow leopard sites and help gather data that will help fund future conservation projects, are in development as well.

As I await my return to move onto the next stage of our project, I will continue to long for the endless plains where herds of horses run free. I will cherish the moments of companionable silence with a local ranger as together we watched the sunrise over the mountains, transitioning the purple morning sky to reds and oranges. I will crave being surrounded by the friendliest people I have ever met, and a culture that enriches my soul. A part of me cannot help but wonder just how often the feline guardian of the peaks was watching us. I do not know if I will ever see that majestic cat beyond images from a camera trap, but that is how it should be. For its survival, the snow leopard must remain a specter, keeping watch from a distance, and never becoming comfortable in the company of humans. And so, until next time my dear Mongolia, “Bayartai!” I bid you farewell.

Katey Duffey has a B.A. in Zoo and Wildlife Biology and a minor in Psychology from Malone University. She also earned a M.A. in Zoology from Miami University in collaboration with Project Dragonfly. Her research interests are in carnivore ecology and mitigating human-carnivore conflicts. @UnciaKate

Header image of snow leopard paw prints by Ochir – Otgontenger SPA


Snow Leopard Conservancy

Mongolian Academy of Sciences

Predator Guard