The following is an excerpt from my journal during my winter recon expedition in a new study site within the Zavkhan province of Mongolia..
“Made it out to base camp today. As we passed through the town of Aldarkhaan, which is closest to our study area for the season, I got to meet the governor. It was pretty exciting since a governor anywhere else is usually just a name on a ballot or a mention in the local news. But this governor was genuinely interested in our work and personally supportive of any projects I wanted to do to help his people. I ended up having an awkward blank response reaction when he asked what HE could do for ME! How many people can say they sampled the snuff bottle (basically just take a whiff of some tobacco) of a governor?! He also supplied my teammate and I with meat from his own stock for our entire field rations! After a meeting with him, we got into our jeeps, and the governor tagged along with his driver escorting us all the way to our camp to introduce us to our host, Bat-Erdene. Coincidently, I interviewed the host’s family the year before when they were in their summer grazing site.
Before we got to our base camp, we stopped at one of the sites we were going to be working in to set a few camera traps. This site is a lower mountain range that is barely 2,500m. It doesn’t even have the iconic snowcapped peaks that the higher ranges currently have, and the rock formations are rounded boulders. It definitely doesn’t resemble the stereotypical jagged, mountain habitat that most people may picture when they imagine snow leopards. However, there is a lot of snow leopard activity here. It’s the same site that some herders have actually seen a couple cats, and where a park staff member got a few photos of the previous winter.
On this first field day, the snow was too dry and powdery to preserve a proper print, but we did find some scat. At one location, we came across a herder who was just returning from shooting a sheep that had been attacked by a snow leopard that night and was barely surviving. Then not far from there, a herder was driving up the “road” on his motorbike with 4 goat hides piled on the back. Those goats had also been attacked by a snow leopard very recently. He left the carcasses for the cat to return to, and agreed to lead the way back to where they were so we could take “evidence photos” and set camera traps. When we trekked up that mountain, the goats were lying within feet of each other in a location where the boulders around them were shaped more like a corral. Most likely, the goats panicked and got confused, while the predatory instincts of the cat were switched on to kill as many as it could (snow leopards have been known to kill up 50 sheep/goats in a corral in one night!). There were faint snow leopard pugmarks and scat around the area, and the unfortunate goats had clear bite wounds on their throats. Or more specifically, no throats at all.
Since I live at sea level, this first hike was a little tough, but it was perfect for acclimation. Coming across locals who had so recently lost livestock was also a strong reminder of the struggle herders have with protecting their animals from the elusive predator, and I couldn’t help but feel more empathetic about this conflict. Finally back at base camp, I realized I was pretty spoiled. Used to just living in a tent, having my own ger with a bed and stove seemed like the equivalent to a five-star hotel. Exploring the surroundings near the camp, I soon discovered some 2,000 year-old petroglyphs of ibex right above where the livestock lay down for the night. This land also has ancient history all around if you take the time to look for it.”