A community-led approach to snow leopard conservation

We meet Bayarjargal Agvaantseren and hear about her work to create a 1.8 million acre nature reserve — a people-led success in snow leopard conservation.

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Bayarjargal Agvaantseren helped create the 1.8 million-acre Tost Tosonbumba Nature Reserve in the South Gobi Desert — a critical habitat for the vulnerable snow leopard — in April 2016, and then she succeeded in persuading the Mongolian government to cancel all 37 mining licenses within the reserve. Since June 2018 there are no active mines within the reserve — and all mining operations are illegal. This is an unprecedented victory for the snow leopard.

How did your work with snow leopards begin?

I have been working for snow leopard conservation for about 20 years now, but I feel like I was quite lucky to have this career because my early career started with language teaching and literature to secondary school students. During my school break, I had the opportunity to work as a translator for a snow leopard biologist.

At that time, I didn’t know much about snow leopards; I had never heard of this animal. Where I grew up, we don’t have snow leopards. However, I was helping this snow leopard biologist, translating his interviews with the nomadic herders in the wild. I learnt about snow leopards, and then I learnt what issues these animals are facing and, at the same time, what issues local herders have who share the mountains with snow leopards. That’s where I basically started.

We created Snow Leopard Enterprises, offering income-generating opportunities with handicrafts so that people have better livelihoods. The idea was to help people find ways to coexist with the snow leopards instead of seeing them as enemies. Because at that time, there was a cost that the snow leopard took from the families. Their behaviour — killing livestock — was causing economical damage for these rural households. They couldn’t tolerate it. That’s how I started working with the Snow Leopard Trust in 2000.

My organisation, the Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation, was set up in 2007. The last six years I have been devoting all of my effort to protect the Tost Mountains, one of the important snow leopard habitats. We are very lucky that we achieved our goal. Tost Mountains are now a state-protected area.

It’s really nice now that we have achieved something that helps the local people and this animal.

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[Snow leopard photo: Goldman Environmental Prize]

What is about snow leopards that is so important?

Snow leopards are very rare animals — they used to be endangered. We never really know how many there are of these animals, but our researchers estimate that in the world we have 4,000 among the central Asian countries. Mongolia holds the second-largest population in the world, which is between 1,000 and 1,200. The Tost Mountains hold more than 20 snow leopards.

They are very charismatic and very secretive animals. Unfortunately, they still face threats to their survival: killing, poaching, and most recently mining. Those challenges are making the snow leopard vulnerable to extinction, that’s why they need protection.

Snow leopards are an umbrella species. If we save the snow leopards, we will be saving a whole ecosystem. The snow leopard as an indicator of the wellbeing of that ecosystem. So Tost Nature Reserve has lots of other wildlife which is being saved under this snow leopard conservation.

How did you challenge the interests of the mining industry?

Mining has a lot of support in Mongolia. It has been a booming industry for the last couple of decades. So it has been challenging. We are just trying to save some land against these big interests.

We didn’t campaign directly against the mining companies. Instead our approach was to campaign and influence the government to protect the land through legislation.

We started by working with the local people to help raise awareness that this land, this snow leopard habitat, and the people’s pasture land, was under threat from mining. Then we approached the local government to get on board, to help us to protect this land.

It took us six years and all kinds of campaigns to spread knowledge about the importance of the snow leopard habitat to be protected. It was hard and it took a lot of effort.

At the same time we realised how little information these decision-makers have about wildlife and its habitat. It was through our campaigns, public discussions, and lots of letter petitions that we were able to share a huge amount of information and that decision-makers were ready to start listening to us.

In 2016, the parliament of Mongolia declared Tost as a national park. After the declaration, the parliament of Mongolia ordered the government to revoke all mining licences. Our job then was to monitor this. We just pushed them — asking when is it going to be finished?

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[Tost Tosonbumba Nature Reserve in the South Gobi Desert photo Goldman Environmental Prize]

What was the biggest factor in your success?

I think the most important thing is that local people, communities, were on our side. They wanted to save the land. We also had legal and human rights groups who were on board to spread the messages throughout Mongolia. It was quite a collaborative effort to make the area protected.

We had a long-term relationship working with the local people, and we’d already gained their trust. They knew about us.

By the time when we started working on the campaign to protect the land, local people in the Tost area had already started seeing that mining was actually not really offering them many benefits. When mining started, I noticed that people expected that they would get more economic opportunities or job opportunities. But over time they realised that for local, rural people there wasn’t actually a benefit or an income. And they also saw that fellow herders in other areas started losing their pasture lands.

So now, people are very happy that their land is protected because of the snow leopards. They can see that a snow leopard is not their enemy.

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[A herder in the Tost Mountains photo: Goldman Environmental Prize]

How did you overcome the very natural concerns about snow leopards and the threat to livestock and livelihoods?

When the snow leopards came and took their livestock, people felt fear and then they tried to scare them away. If a snow leopard wouldn’t go away, they put snares to trap the leopard. The livestock loss that snow leopards cause is a big loss to the household’s income. Our programmes are trying to mitigate and lessen that economic burden and offer them compensation for their losses.

When we started these programmes for the first time we saw that people can’t really tolerate the snow leopards — they have a negative attitude towards them, which is obviously understandable. But when we offer these programmes — livestock insurance programme and handicraft income through Snow Leopard Enterprises — we saw that they started seeing the snow leopard as their heritage and then as one of the natural resources.

People started seeing that we can actually use the snow leopard as our identity and then coexist. Our goal is just to let people learn how to live in harmony with the snow leopards.

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[Baya with herders in the Tost mountains - photo: Goldman Environmental Prize]

How are local people involved in the work you do?

We’re working to develop the management mechanisms of this brand new national park. We want it to be run by the local people — which is quite a new thing in Mongolia. Our job is to keep building the capacity of local people. So they will be leading and learning about how to do the monitoring of the area, how to collect data. That gives people lots of encouragement and then they start liking to be a part of these programmes.

Local people are actually managing a lot of the projects themselves now — they’re actually directing them. With the livestock insurance programme, they manage this programme on their own. They decide how much people are compensated. At the beginning of this project, we helped them financially, and then helped build the capacity to run them. All this work incorporated what they really wanted to be in this programme — now it’s their thing. And once they realised that it is their project, it’s easier for us. We don’t have to be involved in everything. We are just ready to help whenever they need it. But the whole idea is to create programmes that can be sustainable.

How do you see the future now?

I am very hopeful that snow leopards are going to have a better future in Tost Nature Reserve.

I’m glad that we have a long-term relationship with the local people. When I look back I can see that if there weren’t local people involved in our campaign, probably it wouldn’t have been successful. It’s very important that their voice was being heard. We were just helping them to be there.

Tost is now a great example for the other local communities in Mongolia that shows how they can save their land wherever they live, if their rights and their livelihoods are going to be disrupted or damaged. It’s an example that other local communities can see: that they can protect their land.

More about this story

Thousands of snow leopards once roamed Asia’s soaring peaks, from the Himalayas through to China’s vast plateaus. This apex predator is most at home at altitudes of 10,000 feet or more, and its range can reach up to 200 square miles. At less than 100 pounds and barely two feet tall, the deceptively small stature of the elusive mountain ghost” belies its ability to survive in harsh environments. Nevertheless, snow leopards are slow to reproduce, breeding only once every two years, and lose many cubs to the unforgiving climate.

Listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, only 4,0007,000 snow leopards remain in the wild, with nearly 1,000 of those living in Mongolia’s steep mountain ranges and narrow ravines — the second largest population in the world. Poaching for pelts and paws, snatching cubs to sell, retribution killing for livestock depredation and habitat loss have all contributed to a significant decline in global snow leopard populations over the past 15 years.

Snow leopards’ habitat loss is compounded by Mongolia’s booming mining industry. More than 80% of the nation’s exports are minerals, and the South Gobi Desert — a semi-arid, cold desert that forms the heart of snow leopard territory — is a major mining hub. Vast deposits of coal, uranium, copper, gold, oil, and gas have attracted extractive operations by Russian, Mongolian and Chinese companies. Mining further fragments and destroys critical snow leopard habitat, pushing nomadic communities deeper into the snow leopard’s already-scarce territory and causing conflicts between humans, livestock, and snow leopards.

However, as Baya’s work shows, this decline and conflict needn’t be inevitable, and things can be turned around for people and snow leopards alike.