“During the time of communist rule in Mongolia, until 1990, there were regular reports of local people seeing snow leopards in the Khorkh mountains. But since 1990, we hadn’t heard of any confirmed sightings”, says Puji Lkhagvajav, research coordinator for the Snow Leopard Trust in Mongolia. “Now, our camera traps have captured multiple snow leopards, including a mother with two small cubs. I believe this is the first scientific evidence of the cat’s presence in this mountain range.”
The Khorkh mountains are part of the Small Gobi A Strictly Protected Area, a sanctuary for the Gobi’s wildlife straddling the border to China.
Perhaps the biodiversity Puji and her team found in Khorkh is a testament to the protected area’s success. “Besides snow leopards, our cameras also documented lynx, wild ass, red fox, argali and ibex in Khorkh”, Puji says.
The Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) shares some of the snow leopard’s habitat. The lynx is a smaller cat, and can easily be distinguished by its ear tufts and short tail. Photo by SLCF Mongolia & Snow Leopard Trust
The Snow Leopard Trust has studied South Gobi’s wildlife for more than a decade; monitoring and understanding the local snow leopard population. Most of the work was focused on the Tost Tosonbumba Nature Reserve and parts of the adjacent Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park. The study in Khorkh, however, breaks new ground. “We don’t have an unlimited number of cameras or trained field staff, so we have to select our study sites carefully. This is the first time we’ve been able to venture east into Small Gobi A Protected Area – thanks to the help of local rangers, whom we had trained in camera trapping techniques before the survey. The fact that we’ve been able to confirm the snow leopard’s presence here this quickly is encouraging”, Puji says.
The effort is part of a larger push to understand the distribution and population status of the snow leopard across the entire South Gobi landscape, parts of which have been identified by the Mongolian government as a priority area to be secured as a habitat for the snow leopard under the Global Snow Leopard & Ecosystem Protection Program (GSLEP). This is a very large landscape; in total, it’s over 80,000 km2 and includes parts of three Mongolian provinces.
The red outlines marks the South Gobi landscape the government has designated as a priority under the GSLEP program. Green and yellow areas are under official state protection. Map by Snow Leopard Trust
“We have a pretty good understanding of the situation in our long-term study area of Tost and the mountain ranges around it. But when it comes to the rest of this vast landscape, all we had so far were some anecdotal reports of sightings dating decades back. Now, this is slowly changing”, Puji says.
In 2019, Puji and her team plan to sample even more new areas, including parts of Bayakhongor province, further to the west. “Our goal over time is to develop an estimate for the snow leopard population of this entire landscape”, Puji says.
Thank you to the Keidanren Nature Conservation Fund for directly supporting the majority of Mongolia trap camera fieldwork work in 2018, and to Zoo Basel, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo and Jen Benoit for providing the support, supplies, and field management needed to make this camera trapping season a success.
Partnership Funding by Fondation Segré, managed by the Whitley Fund for Nature, has helped tremendously with this work. We are equally thankful to Acacia Conservation Fund, Cat Life Foundation, Columbus Zoo & Aquarium, David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, Disney Conservation Fund, Edrington Group, Jane Smith Turner Foundation, Kolmarden Zoo, Nordens Ark, Nysether Family Foundation, Phoenix Zoo, Turner Foundation, Twycross Zoo, Woodland Park Zoo, and all other donors and supporters who have helped fund our research work in Mongolia.