Saving the “Mountain Ghosts” in Mongolia
January 10, 2014
- Mongolia is home to the second largest population of snow leopards in the world. The snow leopard is classified as an endangered species.
- The snow leopard range countries endorsed a new global initiative to save the species and conserve the high-mountain ecosystems it relies on.
- Mongolia is committed to contributing to the global initiative as it has worked on snow leopard conservation for two decades.
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, January 10, 2014 – Elusive and enigmatic, the endangered snow leopard inhabits some of the world’s most rugged and remote terrains, like those in Mongolia, where about 1,000 live across the fragmented mountains of the Gobi Desert and Altai regions.
Mongolia is home to the second largest population of snow leopards in the world, after China. There are between 3,900 and 6,400 snow leopards left in the wilds of 12 countries today: Afghanistan to the west, China to the east, Russia to the north and India to the south.
Recently, the governments of these 12 countries convened in Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic. Together they endorsed a new global initiative to save the snow leopard and conserve high-mountain ecosystems the species rely on, and the Global Snow Leopard Ecosystem Recovery Program.
Over the last year, range countries, including Mongolia, met several times to develop the program, build country ownership, nurture political will at the highest level and design cross-sector solutions to the issues for the first time. The Global Tiger Initiative provided support to these countries in moving from isolated interventions, typically NGO-led, toward collective actions led by the governments.
The Importance of Snow Leopards to Mongolia
The snow leopard species is protected as “very rare” by the Mongolian Law of Wildlife (2012).
Nicknamed “mountain ghosts”, the distinctive cats are rarely seen by people. But they serve as an indicator of the health of landscapes they share with people and livestock. Providing water, hydropower, minerals, livestock-based livelihoods, opportunities for ecotourism, snow leopard landscapes are important resource for rural and regional economies.
Humans pose serious threats to snow leopards’ survival. In Mongolia, they are poached for their skin and bones, meeting the demands of both the fur industry and traditional Chinese medicine. Overhunting and poaching of their traditional prey have caused conflicts between snow leopards and herders. As the number of their wild prey decreased, snow leopards have turned to attacking domestic livestock. To protect their animals and livelihood, herders retaliate by killing the snow leopards.
Increasing development of roads, railways and other infrastructures that support the mining industry in Mongolia is becoming another threat. For example, construction of a paved road and planned railway in the southern and western parts of Mongolia would divide both the habitat and population of snow leopards and their prey in the area.
Since it is a top predator of the mountain ecosystem of Mongolia and Central Asia, the snow leopard is an umbrella species for the conservation of other species and habitats, says B. Munkhtsog, a senior biologist at the Institute of Biology of Mongolian Academy of Sciences.
The preservation of the Mongolian population of snow leopards is also an important part of the efforts to save and recover the Russian population of the species in the northern edge, and maintain the gene flow with the Chinese snow leopard population in the south.
Conserving these endangered animals and their habitats means managing ecosystems sustainably, adapting to the impacts of climate change, and maintaining water security for over a quarter of the world's people.
Snow Leopard Conservation in Mongolia
The first-ever snow leopard conservation project in Mongolia started in 1994, by the Mongolian Association for Conservation of Nature partnering with the Snow Leopard Trust.
In the last 20 years, snow leopard conservation has been ongoing in Mongolia. This has included:
- Policy, conservation programs and habitat protection of the snow leopard and its prey species
- Research and monitoring of the snow leopard and its prey species
- Environmental education programs in the snow leopard distribution range
- Establishing and engaging local conservation communities and strengthening governance in the snow leopard range areas
- Employment of anti-poaching teams, volunteer rangers who regularly patrol wildlife protection areas
- Training law enforcement agencies in how to recognize and prevent smuggling of snow leopards and wildlife parts
- Raising public awareness through media outlets
Innovative Conservation Efforts and Best Practices in Mongolia
Sainbileg, from the Yamaat valley of western Mongolia, remembers witnessing other community members poaching wildlife. In 2004, she joined the Snow Leopard Enterprises handicrafts program.
The program provides herders with access to local and foreign markets for herder-made handicrafts, returning the bulk of sales profits directly to the herders. In return, the herders promise not to harm the local snow leopards or their natural prey and to protect them from poaching.
After Sainbileg earned some extra money through the program, she also convinced her neighbors to join. “I am proud to report that we have not seen any poaching these days,” she said.
More than 400 herder families living in the snow leopard habitats in seven provinces of Mongolia are now part of the program. “Where people have an alternative source of income, it is less likely for them to kill snow leopards either to sell illegally or in retaliation for livestock killings,” says Bayarjargal Agvaantseren, Mongolia Country Program Director, Snow Leopard Trust.
Like the handicrafts program, these practices have also proven successful and could be replicated in the long run:
- Since the 1990s many new protected areas were established in potential snow leopard habitats in Mongolia. Today, 20 state-protected areas in the country harbor snow leopards.
- Two Trans-boundary Nature Reserves were established in important snow leopard habitats at the border of Russia and Mongolia.
- Two inter-agency anti-poaching teams were established in western Mongolia to conduct regular patrolling in snow leopard habitats. As a result, the number of poaching incidents in five western provinces decreased rapidly.