Saving Snow Leopards: Spotlighting Sr. Zookeeper Bridget’s work in Mongolia

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Hi everyone- Senior Keeper Bridget here! This past spring I was fortunate enough to spend two weeks in Mongolia with our partners at the Snow Leopard Trust and I’d like to tell you all about it!

Zookeeper Bridget
Snow flurry in Tost

After a total of 21 hours on planes, I landed in Ulaanbaatar. It was by far the farthest I had ever traveled, and I was feeling pretty anxious only to be met by the warm and welcoming face of Nara, my Mongolian guide.

Next, a short journey which comprised of an entire day of driving south to just outside Lammergeier Valley (snow leopard territory) and two days of driving across and through the rolling and seemingly infinite sand dunes of the South Gobi, past paleontological sites, until finally the very remote cluster of gers that held the Snow Leopard Trust base camp of the Tost Mountains emerged. The camp is situated hidden amid mountains on every side.

We were greeted by the smiling faces of our host Oyuna, community rangers, scientists Justine, Orjan and Gustaf and last but certainly not least the camp’s two Bankhar dogs. 

The Snow Leopard Trust (SLT) has been working with the Mongolian government and in partnership with the Snow Leopard Conservation Fund (SLCF) to better understand and conserve snow leopards, their habitat and their prey since 1992 and 2007 respectively. Since 2008 SLT has been managing a long-term ecological study in the South Gobi. Some of the largest contributions to this study have been the collaring of wild snow leopards, wide range camera trapping and twice monthly community ranger patrols. Over the course of an awe-inspiring week in Tost I got to hear firsthand from some of the scientists responsible for the incredible work being done in the Gobi. I got to learn about their relationships with the land, people and animals of Mongolia, their methods (as well as the competitive nature of collaring vs camera trapping) and how not to shoot a dart gun. 

Örjan is a Swedish scientist that has been collaring snow leopards in the Gobi since 2008. He is quiet but kind and has a wicked sense of humor. Over the course of his career he has experienced massive victories as well as unimaginable challenges— just ask him about getting something stuck in his eye in the middle of the Gobi Desert. Joining him on the collaring team is Gustaf.

Gustaf is a tall and gregarious Swedish scientist who has been working with SLT since 2012. He is considerate of all around him and always listening but most importantly he is the research team’s biggest cheerleader. Both scientists welcomed us with open arms into their ger for an overview of just how collaring snow leopards works. After a few moments of introductions, we were stopped and joined by a neighboring herder. The main purpose of this interruption was for Gustaf to visit with his goat best friend, who he had won favor with through offerings of bread. Though their friendship was whimsical in nature, interactions like these between researchers and herders help strengthen relationships and as a result conservation. When we returned to the ger we learned that through so many years of trial and error in Tost, the set up and response to snares is very nearly perfected and the health and safety of the snared cat is paramount.

Gustaf and goat
Gustaf and his goat friend
A circle of rocks between brush hints at the presence of a snow leopard snare

Snares are set up in relatively close proximity to base camp, close to the valleys between mountains to avoid the catching and possible releasing of a cat on steep terrain. Each snare is equipped with a small pin that alerts inside the team’s ger when it is tripped. Not only does it alert that a snare has been tripped, but it gives Örjan and Gustaf the location name of the snare. This dramatically cuts down the amount of time that the cat is in the rope-tie snare, which reduces the cat’s stress and makes for an easier procedure.

When the snares are triggered the guys are ready in their ger with a go bag that includes a dart gun and immobilization medicine, medical supplies needed for the work up, and a sleeping bag that can be used to move the cat if necessary as well as keep the cat warm throughout the procedure. While the snow leopard is immobilized, Orjan and Gustaf track the cat’s vitals to ensure they are doing well, take a weight, photograph the rosette pattern for the camera trapping team, and fit the collar. If the procedure has taken place in a less than ideal location the team will move the cat to a flat area for a quick and easy recovery. The collars are programmed to release 12-18 months after being set which begins the fun game of “find the collar in the mountain.” After generously relaying all this information and displaying for us how they build their snares, they thought we might want some hands-on experience so they offered us shooting practice with their top of the line dart gun. To sum things up: I will be sticking to zookeeping and not dipping my toes into veterinary medicine, their ger may have a pinprick the size of a dart in it and a laser focus is a very helpful feature.

SLT Team
Friendly ribbing between the collaring team and camera trapping team

Despite their playfully quarrelsome relationship, the collaring team and their results harmonize perfectly with the camera trapping team and their work. Joining us in Tost from the camera trapping team was Pujii and Justine.

Pujii works as the Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation’s (SLT’s Mongolian counterpart) Executive Director. She has been walking amongst these cats and in these mountains for years upon years. Watching her hike the terrain was something to behold, always a sure step and taking in her surroundings, constantly looking for signs of snow leopards. While serious about her work, Pujii is almost always laughing and smiling and she was quick to be goofy with me. Justine is a Senior Conservation Scientist who has been working with the Snow Leopard Trust since 2016. She is bubbly, inquisitive and intensely passionate about snow leopards and her work. Together they hiked us through valleys and up ridges, showing us the signs that tell them that snow leopards are in the area- scrapes, paw prints, scent marking, scat or the remains of prey. They use their extensive knowledge of snow leopard behavior and their habitat to choose where to position their camera traps. Affixing the cameras with what the landscape provides and a bungee cord, their hard work gifts us a glimpse into the secret lives of snow leopards. Using images from these camera traps the team has been able to identify numerous individuals by their distinct spot patterns, gained knowledge about home ranges, population, litter size, cub mortality, when cubs leave their mother, and much, much more. Through all the jokes and jabs between teams it is apparent that these researchers have an immense amount of respect and admiration for each other and the part that they each play in shaping our understanding of snow leopards. 

Pujii has also helped spearhead the training of community rangers. Community rangers are typically herders that live within the Tost Nature Reserve. Having lived with snow leopards over the course of their lives these herders have a wealth of knowledge when it comes to the cats, their prey and how they use the terrain. The community rangers patrol their given area twice a month to keep an eye out for possible poaching or illegal mining, survey prey populations, set up or retrieve camera traps and more. With the expansion of this program, so too expands the research’s reach. Cameras can be changed out and processed more frequently and the real time observations of the rangers work to provide the most complete picture of Tost yet. Oftentimes herding communities have poor relationships with snow leopards. Their entire livelihood lies within their herd and the possible predation of these animals by snow leopards is a very valid and ever-present concern.

Buren, community ranger and the 2021 Disney Conservation Hero award winner for his snow leopard conservation work, began his journey looking to address herd predation. Beyond the scientific research that the SLT is responsible for, facilitating conversations about how to live around these mysterious cats and empowering communities to take ownership of snow leopard and snow leopard habitat conservation is invaluable.

I cannot fully describe how much this trip meant to me, which is why it took a long time to write this piece. To traipse along a glacier, look out at the 40 km that separates these cats from the next nearest mountain range, or stumble across the loose rock of the Tost Mountains — all things that the wild counterparts of our very own Kira and Himal do day to day — was incredible to say the very least. There were many perks on this trip. One of which was that Justine spent some mornings leading us in yoga, helping us set our intentions for the day. Mine was always the same: to truly take in everything that I was seeing, to appreciate the vastness that is the Gobi Desert and to somehow wrap my head around the fact that I was getting to experience its wonder.  

Zoo New England is a Conservation Partner with the Snow Leopard Trust, working together to protect this flagship species from extinction. Learn more about this partnership.