The Power of Networking: How I Fell into Snow Leopard Research

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The first snow leopard image my team and I got in Otgontenger SPA, Mongolia

If you would’ve asked me just a few years ago what species I would end up studying or where I would be doing field work, my answer would’ve been along the lines of “wolves or coyotes” and “somewhere in the western US”. Never would I have imagined doing anything remotely related to big cat conservation. An idea like that seemed like nothing more than an impossible childhood dream. Over the years it became ingrained in my mind from my peers that I needed to focus on a “more realistic” goal of the species I would most likely be able to study. Mainly, wildlife native to my region.

In the event that I hit too many closed doors pursuing my ultimate love of carnivore conservation, there would have to come a time to choose between sacrificing time and options for my goals, or be content with whatever I could find. Carnivore conservation is an incredible passion, but it is also an incredibly competitive passion, which is hard to get into unless you are already apart of a university project or work for an agency of sorts. Without that foothold, you end up with countless cold calls, emails, and applications that you may or may not get a response from.

Have you heard of the phrase “Its often who you know that counts”? From my personal experiences of hitting one wall after the other, long past when most people would throw in the towel, that phrase rings all too true. Yet, not always in the most expected way. Having worked with renowned wolf biologist Dr. Dave L. Mech, I had hoped that studying wolves (or any canid) in the States would be much easier. I was wrong. I struggled with trying to even volunteer on coyote projects in my own state, let alone trying to land a tech job somewhere else, despite receiving responses that said “we find you are highly qualified, however…”. At some point I lost track of the government agency posts, zoo internships, nonprofit organizations, or even environmental consult jobs I tried for. I filled in the gaps between undergrad and graduate school, when I was unable to work in the field, studying carnivores, with odd jobs and university lab work.

Once I decided on a graduate program through Miami University, I continued to integrate my passion for carnivores to all my projects. I had a “Master Plan”, as opposed to a traditional thesis, all connected by a theme. All those projects had to be applied to both local and global scale communities. This is where my interest in mitigating carnivore conflicts came in. I began relating conflicts between humans and different carnivores, while engaging various demographics in my community with different types of projects.

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Goats and sheep are valuable for both their cashmere or wool, and their meat. They are often preyed upon by snow leopards, leading to retribution killings by herders

During my graduate program, I was able to choose an Earth Expedition as a field course elective through Project Dragonfly. Two courses caught my attention the most: Namibia (cheetah-herder conflicts) and Kenya (elephant, lion and hyena-farmer/herder conflicts). Those fit my Master Plan! How could I NOT be placed in one of those based on my application essay describing why I chose that course, and how it fit into all my master’s work so far?! Well, as I learned years ago, life doesn’t always work out how you hope. I was placed in the Mongolia (steppe ecology & civic media) course, which had absolutely nothing to do with any of my master’s projects. Now the hard part was to figure out how I was going to do a final study that was related to that course and top off my Capstone. I had exhausted all local options to do anything else, and trying to sort out a project elsewhere in only a few months was out of the question. Commence panic mode!

Then a crazy idea clicked that my best option was to go for what was deemed as “impossible” by many people I talked to; do a field study in a foreign country without having any current contact with someone there. But how? My “advisor” was only a name on documents, and I had no way of emailing course instructors until the course actually started. By then, it would be too late to set up a field project, let alone raise the funds for it.

However, I had an unexpected “ace” up my sleeve. Long before I even knew about the Mongolia field course, I had been in contact with a snow leopard biologist and a canid biologist who had both worked in Mongolia. I had contacted the snow leopard biologist on a whim one day a few years prior, thinking it would be cool to study the cats, but knew deep down it would never happen. We stayed in touch. The canid biologist was contacted to ask about information on some of his wolf research around the same time. Unfortunately I was not able to collaborate with either of them, but the canid biologist passed along the email address to a former student who was studying przewalski’s horse-wolf interactions in Mongolia for her Phd. We swapped ideas, but ultimately I was unable to collaborate with her as well. Yet all was not lost! Her fiancé just so happened to work in the lab with Dr. B. Munkhtsog, a snow leopard and Pallas cat biologist at the Mongolian Academy of Sciences.

This was my last shot, so I sent Dr. Munkhtsog a simple proposal to interview herders on livestock losses to wolves. Yes, you read that right. I asked a snow leopard biologist about studying wolves because I assumed that studying snow leopards was impossible for me to ever get into. When I hit the send button, I expected another closed door, another “no”. I was certainly not prepared for a “yes”! Not only was it a yes, it was a suggestion to study both snow leopard and wolf conflicts instead! It wasn’t until a couple months later that I found out that he was the in country partner for my field course. It turned out to be one giant coincidence! Being in the course also, had nothing to do with having my proposal accepted. He receives requests all the time from students, and at the time he was already considering three other proposals, but said he really liked mine.

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My first campsite in my study area

Finally receiving a yes on such an epic experience was a dream come true. Finding out I could actually do a project on a big cat in a foreign land, was both the most exciting and most terrifying moment I had in years of struggling to find a niche in conservation. That’s pretty much it. My work studying snow leopards began with one hesitant email that was strung to a web of networking efforts. Some led to dead ends, but others led to other connections. Although it may be hard to appreciate closed doors in the moment, sometimes the best thing to happen to you in your journey is to be told “no”. It opens up options which you had no idea existed, and wouldn’t have considered if those initial options worked out. A yes may often take awhile, but the wait is worth it if you are willing to keep fighting for it. Don’t be afraid to take chances or ask questions, and never EVER give up.

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