Snow Leopard Trust UK founder Stephen Sparrow had the privilege of making a field trip to Mongolia this spring. He shares his experiences on our blog.
By Stephen Sparrow
As a passionate conservationist ( I used to spend my university and law school holidays safariing in East Africa) it was a dream come true to spend time as a guest of the International Snow Leopard Trust at their research camp in the Tost valley of the South Gobi desert.
When I had learnt about the plight, and how endangered the snow leopard was in 2005, little did I know that five years on I would be privileged enough to spend time with the scientists in the field and meet the wonderful herder families who share the snow leopard’s habitat and participate in the community based conservation programmes.
Helping the Families who had suffered from the Zudt
It was earlier on this year when listening to the early morning “Today” radio show in London that I had learnt that Mongolia had suffered something called a “Zudt”. A Zudt is an exceptionally cold winter which results in the nomadic herders losing much livestock.
I phoned Brad Rutherford, the Executive Director of the International Snow Leopard Trust, to ask how this was affecting the herder communities participating in the conservation programmes in the South Gobi, and after some investigation he reported back that there were a large number of families who had lost the majority of their livestock and that he was trying to raise $15,000 to provide a disaster relief fund for the herder families.
After consulting with my accountant and deciding to put on a fundraiser in London I called back to Brad that I would find the money and asked him to please send the message to the families that we would provide them with relief.
After the money was distributed to the families an invitation came from the herder families that they would like to say thank you to the people who had helped them and I decided to travel to Mongolia (at my own expense) and spend a fortnight doing volunteer work for the Snow Leopard Trust in the Tost Valley.
Meeting the people
Nadia, the Mongolian PHD student who works for the Trust, very kindly took me to meet a number of families who were involved both in the livestock insurance programme and Snow Leopard Enterprises programme.
Bayara, the head of the International Snow Leopard Trust’s Mongolia programme, has dedicated more than ten years to buildling a marvellous enterprise programme where women are taught to spin wool and make beautiful handicrafts which are then sold internationally. Participating families typically will double their annual income and the families pledge to ensure that no snow leopards are killed in retribution in their community’s territory.
Working with the scientists
Orjan and Koustubh, 2 Snow Leopard Trust scientists working on the Trust’s long term field research projects, kindly took me under their wing and set me to work laying camera trips on ridge lines and monitoring ibex kill sites. It is only through a position of knowledge that governments and NGOs will be effectively lobbied to support snow leopard conservation over the long term and that conservation efforts can be most effectively focused.
An Amazing day
It was on the eve of my mother’s birthday that I had the huge, huge privilege to see a snow leopard out in the wild. My knowledge of wildlife is such that I realised that the chances of me seeing a snow leopard in the wild were waiver thin; probably less than 100 westerners have actually seen a snow leopard in the wild.
Under the expert tutelage of Koustubh and Orjan we went out tracking to see if Aztai, a cat they’re tracking, might have returned to an ibex kill site in one of the canyons. The reason why humans rarely see a snow leopard in the wild and why these cats are known as the ghosts of the mountain, is that they have superb eye sight, hearing and smell and will see a human long before the human sees the the snow leopard; coupled with the fact that they are so well camouflaged.
The gods were looking favourably on us that day as we approached what turned out to be Aztai, from the up wind cover of huge ridge were thus undetected until quite literally we were on top of the ridge which had a ledge/cave in where he was laying up. The resulting photographs I took apparently are the closest (distance wise) anyone has ever photographed a snow leoapard in the wild. What a privilege.
We have all no doubt heard the expression “jungle telegraph”, where news miraculously travels quickly in the jungle where there are no telephones or email. Well in my humble expression there is a “broad band/high speed” version of this known as “desert telegraph”. The local herders have no phones, no computers and typically the nomadic families live 10-15kms apart from each other.
Well, news travels very quickly in the gobi desert. It was only two days after my arrival that all of the 60 families who live within a 200 square mile vicinity were aware that an Englishman who had kindly raised money for the families who suffered from the Zudt was visiting the valley. However it probably took only one day to learn that this Englishman was a good camel rider and liked the camel arag (fermented camel milk traditional drink) that he had been served by one of the families in their gher.