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The Battle For Tost’s Snow Leopards

A collared snow leopard individual known as M9 or Kullu patrols its lair among the Tost mountains in Mongolia. Photo: KulBHushansingh Suryawanshi.

One morning in December 2009, we got an urgent call from the rarely-used satellite phone at our remote field research station in South Gobi, near Mongolia’s border with China. A snow leopard wearing a GPS collar had been found dead in the Tost Mountains, the site of our long-term study – in fact, the most comprehensive and long-term study on snow leopards being conducted anywhere in the world. It was shocking to hear the news. We knew it was Bayartai, the second of the 23 snow leopards we have so far collared as part of our study, which we had started in 2008. It was hard news to swallow, especially because we had known Bayartai for a long time. He had a name and he had character. We knew his daily activities through our satellite tracking system, so he was like a dear friend to us. We suspected that he may have been killed in response to a livestock attack. Such incidents are a big threat to the snow leopard’s survival. A few days later, an investigation revealed that a local herder had indeed shot Bayartai inside his livestock holding pen, in a desperate attempt to save his herd.

Soon after the incident, we travelled to the field to discuss with local people ways to prevent these kinds of incidents in the future. The herder who shot Bayartai did not do so out of greed or malice, but rather out of desperation, to protect his livelihood. To help herders like him bear livestock losses, we developed a community-driven livestock insurance programme that had previously been successfully implemented by our colleagues in India. This intervention could not bring Bayartai back – but it might help other snow leopards avoid a similar fate.

A file picture of Sumbee with two snow leopard cubs in the Tost Mountains. He dedicated his life’s work to secure their and other snow leopards’ future. Photo: SLCF/SLT/Mongolian Ministry of Nature Environment and Tourism.

Not the only threat

While developing the programme, we learned that retaliatory killings were not the only threat we had to deal with: we discovered that almost the entire snow leopard habitat of Tost had been designated for large-scale mining! At this time, our research had yielded information that this particular area had...

 
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