Chasing Ghosts in the Mongolian Altai

Mongolia’s Bayan-Ölgii province is an incredibly remote, but beautiful region of mostly untouched wilderness situated right on the borders of Russia, China, and Kazakhstan. It features rugged 3,000-4,000m (9,842-13,123m) snowcapped peaks, with glacier-fed lakes, rivers, and a large variety of wildlife that includes snow leopards, wolves, wolverines, and Siberian brown bears.

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This region first captivated me after learning of The Altai Project’s work on the Russian side. The photos of the challenging terrain, and diverse flora and fauna practically screamed at me to one day apply a field project within it. Eventually the wish came true when I met a researcher with the Green Initiative NGO who is surveying this little studied area for snow leopards. Of course we got chatting about a project I wanted to start that ideally requires samples from different regions, and behold, a new study site opened up with an epic collaboration!

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The sound of groaning, cracking ice is so very comforting when you’re as remote as humanly possible.

Simply getting to the study sites within the Siilkhem National Parks was an adventure in itself. A 5-hour drive from the city of Ölgii, the road is nothing more than a dirt path that bumps over endless steppe, through rocky valleys, and over frozen rivers and lakes. This pilot season being in March, its somewhat a last chance to access certain areas before those very same waterways melt. Already, the ice was beginning to thaw as the top layers cracked and shifted under our Soviet era Russian van.

Something that stands out about this region compared to others in the country I’ve been in is that there is a lot of wild prey. Large herds of ibex traverse the mountain ranges and thrive within the valleys. Though I was informed about this ahead of time, I still wasn’t prepared to see such a herd behind our host family’s camp. Early that first morning, on the slope behind the family’s corral, grazed a few dozen ibex. A great sign that we were in an area where a large predator would be present. That would not be the last time we saw the large, wild goats.

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Part of the herd where we counted 50 ibex!

Almost every valley we surveyed supported them. For one herd, a teammate and I counted 50 ibex as they ran down the steep slope right near where we were, and down across the valley. The ibex were close enough that we could hear their grunts as they effortlessly descended down lose scree (smaller rocks. Often sharp-edged). We quietly sat perfectly still. Any shift of a rock can be heard by the wary animals.

Argali sheep are another wild ungulate that snow leopards in this region prey on, and the Altai is one of the only places in Mongolia where you will find them scattered about. Standing 85-135 cm (3-4 ft) high at the shoulder, and weighing up to 328kg (723lbs), this is the largest big sheep species in the world. The impressive horns of the rams also make it a prize for many trophy hunters. It was very exciting to see a small group of males on a ridge as we were headed to a transect site. Even from a distance they are massive!

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Argali ram

The terrain is much more difficult in this region than in others in some ways. The mountains are higher, steeper, and covered with thicker, loose scree. Every step is a delicate balance of finding your footing, and trying not to set off rock slides that can easily catch your leg. Hiking back down is a careful process of side-stepping and sliding, letting the rocks shift a bit before taking your next step. We often found ourselves needing the use of crampons to keep traction on ice from mountain streams, rivers that we had to cross, and sections of glacier near the peaks.

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Wolf track. We found several sets around a fresh ibex kill.

There is usually more snow here than in other parts of Mongolia. However, this particular year was warmer, so less snow was found throughout the landscape in general. Valleys, draws, and plateaus still had deep powder that came up to our thighs in those features though. These features are also the best areas to find sign of wildlife passing through. Unfortunately, the deep snow makes traveling more difficult than it already is. Our van got stuck several times trying to find a spot to park before we hiked the rest of the way. Nothing some shoveling, and a track made of well-positioned rocks can’t fix!

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At least we got stuck with a lovely mountain view!

Everything about this environment is what a snow leopard lover would imagine as the perfect home for the cats. From day 1 of the field season, the team was not disappointed with signs of snow leopards, not only living here, but breeding! Fresh tracks crisscrossed though valleys, including a set of tracks belonging to a small cub following its mother, and a larger set of tracks that could possibly be a male. A couple teammates heard the yowl of a snow leopard echoing in that same valley one morning. Enough scat to use for our pilot study was collected as well in just a short amount of time between both national parks we surveyed.

Most incredible of all was I FINALLY got a glimpse of a wild snow leopard in person for the first time since I started studying them in 2014! It was late one evening as we were all heading out of a very promising valley. My teammate, Alex, saw some motion on the slope on his side of the van and hollered for us to stop, his high-powered camera lens pointed out the window. Immediately I jumped to that side of the vehicle to see what he saw, and caught the ghostly figure of a smoky-gray big cat leap, from one boulder to another before disappearing into a deep outcrop. The most distinct feature was the ridiculously long tail! The ranger, driver, and interpreter we were with did not believe us, but there could be no mistake. We saw a snow leopard! No other similar-sized animal in this region moves like the way a snow leopard does. Too late to hike up a bit to try to get a closer look, we came back to that site the following day. Sure enough, fresh tracks were right where we saw the cat. Solidifying the fact that Alex and I weren’t crazy. We. Saw. A. Snow leopard!

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The valley where we glimpsed the snow leopard. We can only hope it takes a selfie on one of our camera traps!

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