Wednesday, October 03, 2018

The Quest for Snow Leopards in Mongolia

Greetings Everyone,
After a successful visit to Eastern Mongolia to see Pallas’s Cats we are now flying west to the city of Khovd with our trip leader Ian Green and our Greentours group. As we neared our destination we flew over a large lake surrounded by rocky mountains about 12,000-feet high. Here we would search for a second species of cat found in Mongolia, the fabled Snow Leopard!

Jargalant Mountains

We landed in Khovd where we were met by our local drivers and divided into five 4x4’s for the drive to our ger camp in the Jargalant Mountains where we’d spend the next 6 nights. We left the main tarmac road and headed toward the base of the mountains. Marc spotted some animals running across the steppe. With their heads hung low, we knew they were Saiga Antelopes! As it was nearing dusk and they were a long way off we didn’t get a good view. Hopefully, we’d see more in the coming days. We arrived in camp after dark and sorted ourselves into a series of 10 gers that had been set up by the local community for visitors. After dinner and a short night walk, it was time for bed.

(Snow Leopard) Camp

The next morning we woke to sunny skies and after breakfast, we climbed higher into the mountains in the 4x4’s to scan for Snow Leopards. At our first viewpoint overlooking a canyon we spotted Siberian Ibex in the far distance and two endangered Saker Falcons tussled overhead but sadly there were no leopards.

Scanning for Snow Leopards

Higher up in the mountains, local horsemen were also on the search. Word came in that they had found a Snow Leopard in the morning but had lost it. Bummer, we’d try again in the afternoon.

Saker Falcon

We drove even higher after lunch to a second viewpoint to scan for the elusive cat. Again we spotted Siberian Ibex, a favorite prey for the leopards but the cats themselves were nowhere to be seen. The horsemen above weren’t having any luck either so we called it a day and returned to camp for dinner. On the drive back we spotted 4 Golden Eagles soaring overhead. These birds are now famous due to the movie “The Eagle Huntress”. It’s worth a viewing if you haven’t seen it. 

Golden Eagles

A night walk produced Siberian Jerboas, a Tolai Hare and a Red Fox. Back in the dining Ger, the resident Mid-day Jird or Gerbil was picking up crumbs that we had left behind. I’m not sure why they are called Mid-day Jird since they are mostly nocturnal. We turned in hoping for better luck with the Snow Leopards in the morning.

Mid-day Jird

Another sunny day brought much-welcomed news, the horsemen had found a Snow Leopard! 

Dramatic Sunrise

After a hasty breakfast, we raced off in our 4x4’s to the location high in the mountains. When we arrived the horsemen were anxiously waiting and pointed out the Snow Leopard on a distant ridge 3 km away! We set up spotting scopes but to my dismay, the cat looked like a grey blob. We needed to get closer. I scanned the ridges looking for possible routes. To get on the ridge above the cat meant a long walk so we opted for a closer ridge across the valley from the leopard. We headed out with Ian and some of our group along an undulating ridge. We were able to get within 2 km of the Snow Leopard. It was still a long way off but at least I could make out that it was a cat in my binoculars. It was guarding a kill (most likely a Siberian Ibex) by a large boulder from a marauding Red Fox but after a couple of hours the cat lost interest in its meal and sauntered up to the ridge and out of view. Marc was able to get a decent photo of the distant cat. Maybe tomorrow we’d find a Snow Leopard a bit closer.

Snow Leopard!

We returned to camp and decided to explore the canyon above our gers by foot.  Last night, Ian had spotted a Steppe Polecat and we wanted to see if it was still around.  We didn't find the polecat but we did see some Siberian Ibex crossing the canyon ahead of us.

Siberian Ibex

The next morning we woke to cloudy skies and impending rain. With the mountains socked in we couldn’t go higher to look for Snow Leopards so we headed down to look for other wildlife. We spotted a lone Saiga Antelope feeding on the steppe. Again it was a long way off but a few of us set off on foot to get a closer view. We hid behind a low hill so the antelope was unaware of our presence. A prominent feature of the Saiga is a pair of closely spaced, bloated nostrils directed downward. During summer migrations, a Saiga’s nose helps filter out dust kicked up by the herd and cools the animal's blood. In the winter, it heats up the frigid air before it is taken to the lungs. We got to within 100 meters before the Saiga got wind of us and bounded off.

Saiga Antelope

Historically the Saiga Antelope was a common species on the Eurasian Steppe numbering over a million individuals. Today their numbers have been drastically reduced to 50,000 animals by climatic conditions and over-hunting. They are listed as critically endangered by the IUCN. We were very lucky to get a close look at this beleaguered animal.

Herds of domestic yaks and Bactrian Camels were now grazing the steppe where once Saiga roamed.

Bactrian Camels and Domestic Yaks

We dove to Lake Durgan for lunch where we saw a few more Saiga and many shorebirds including this cute Kentish Plover.

Kentish Plover

On the drive back to camp we flushed a large flock of Pallas’s Sandgrouse. 

Pallas's Sandgrouse

The weather grew worse and the following morning we woke to snow!

Snowstorm

We tried driving up but our vehicles didn’t have enough traction on the steep grades. We drove down into the steppe but got mired in mud so we returned to camp. With limited options, we chose to explore by foot further up the canyon near camp. We saw some birds including a dramatic view of a Northern Goshawk carrying an unfortunate Chukar Partridge but mammal-wise the canyon was quiet.

Northern Goshawk with Chukar Partridge

On our last full day at camp, the weather finally broke and we woke to sunny skies. 

Good Weather Returns

The fresh blanket of snow higher up was beautiful but limited our options for searching for Snow Leopards. It was September 20, our 32nd wedding anniversary and I told Marc a Snow Leopard would make the perfect gift. We drove to the Eastern Valley where the locals thought the Snow Leopard seen 3 days ago may have gone. 

Eastern Valley

We searched 2 side valleys where we found a total of 28 Siberian Ibex, 2 Red Foxes, and 2 Siberian Marmots but sadly no Snow Leopards. It was difficult being disappointed in such a beautiful and remote landscape. Even though we didn’t see the Snow Leopards we knew they were there possibly watching us from some rocky outcrop.
The following day we started the long journey back to Ulaanbaatar. On the drive out we encountered some Black-tailed or Goitered Gazelles and a small herd of 13 Saiga Antelope.

Black-tailed or Goitered Gazelles

We got word that our 10:30 AM flight had been delayed until 7:00 PM! The bad weather that had plagued us had also hit Ulaanbaatar canceling flights and backing up air traffic. It would be a late arrival into Ulaanbaatar. We left Western Mongolia with mixed feelings. We were hoping to have seen Snow Leopards much closer but how many people can claim to have seen a Snow Leopard in the wild? The next leg of our journey will take us to Hustai National Park in search of the world’s only true wild horse. Stay tuned to see if we are successful.
We hope all is well with everyone.
Peggy and Marc

Our route map:



2 comments:

Avijit Sarkhel said...

Wonderful read.!! Why not a few more images of the landscape. That will be fun to see too. Polecat......wow that's some mammal.

Marc & Peggy Faucher said...

Hi Avi, Thanks! Marc will be posting some more landscape shots on his photo website soon.