How Mongolia learnt to love its leopards

No one knows how many snow leopards inhabit the remote mountains of Asia. But the struggle to protect them may have changed the Mongol view of this elusive predator. Jasper Becker reports from Ulan Bator
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Only paw prints in the snow and the two small puncture marks in the neck of a sheep drained of blood reveal that the elusive snow leopard had come and gone. "This leopard killed a dozen animals, including my prize breeding buck," Surengerel, a wind-burnt herdswoman, tells the visitors enjoying mugs of tea at the stove of her round felt tent, pitched in a remote corner of the Gobi Desert.

Only paw prints in the snow and the two small puncture marks in the neck of a sheep drained of blood reveal that the elusive snow leopard had come and gone. "This leopard killed a dozen animals, including my prize breeding buck," Surengerel, a wind-burnt herdswoman, tells the visitors enjoying mugs of tea at the stove of her round felt tent, pitched in a remote corner of the Gobi Desert.

We are at Bayantooroi, a tiny settlement 600 miles south-west of the capital Ulan Bator, on the edge of the Great Gobi Protected Area, home to 50 snow leopards, rare breeds of wild camels, goats, sheep and Ursus arctos gobiensis, the world's only desert bear.

It was an unusual winter, when the vast desert was covered with a foot of snow and Surengerel's family struggled to save the flock of 200 goats and sheep, plus 20 camels, on which they depend to scrape a living in one of the world's harshest climates. Some neighbours lost all their animals; nobody could recall anything like it. For a month, delivering fodder to the livestock was impossible, she said, because even four-wheel drives stuck in the snowdrifts. The snow leopard went hungry too. Unable to hunt their usual prey - wild argali sheep, antelope and ibex - the big cats came out of the mountains to attack the herds.

Surengerel's visitor says soothingly: "It is good that nobody went out and killed the snow leopard." Doljinsuren, a Mongolian who works for the Seattle-based International Snow Leopard Trust (many Mongolians have only one name) has travelled here armed with bundles of cash. First, she pays the herders a bonus of 500,000 Tughrik (£230) for honouring their contract to protect the snow leopard. Then she sorts through a pile of camel-hair slippers, scarves, socks and little wool effigies of the silky predator, which she is going to buy and ship to America. The herdswomen had knitted the handicrafts during the winter, and soon the goods will be sold in international zoos in a worldwide conservation effort to save the shyest and most beautiful of all the great cats.

The first photograph of a wild snow leopard was taken only in the 1970s in Chitral, Pakistan, because they are harder to track than tigers and live in the wildest parts of the earth. The silver-grey fur is such good camouflage in the hunting dusk that even when radio-collared, with signals showing the big cat is present, the predator can be hard to spot.

The animal was first studied by the American naturalist, George Schaller, but it was elevated into a poetic symbol when he went on an expedition to Nepal with Peter Matthiessen, author of the bestselling The Snow Leopard in the late 1970s.

Although snow leopards range across the high and remote mountains of Asia, that isolation no longer protects the species. Some of these mountains are in civil war zones, such as the Tora Bora mountains in Afghanistan, the Hindu Kush, Jammu and Kashmir and the Pamirs of Tajikistan.

With the spread of the market economy to inner Asia, the predator fell victim to hunters in more peaceful zones, including Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia and Xinjiang in China. Shops in areas of China - as in Tibet, Qinghai and Gansu - openly sold snow leopard pelts and their "tiger" bones, used to make Chinese medicine.

Some snow leopards are also caught for private zoos in Middle Eastern countries where the animal is traditionally prized as a symbol of power and nobility. In ancient times, loyal subjects had gifted Mongol Khans, a ger or tent made from snow leopard pelts instead of felt. In Kyrgyzstan, poachers may have killed a third of the snow leopard population since 1994. The pelts can fetch as much as $70 (£38) a skin, as much as some herders earn in a year. Customs officers in Mongolia seized so many illegal snow-leopard skins they put them on public display at the Genghis Khan tourist camp near the capital.

Worldwide, there may be just 3,500 snow leopards left, although the figure could be much higher, depending on the result of research starting in China. The country, especially Xinjiang, has the world's largest snow leopard terrain and may hold up to 2,500 of the animals. Until recently, there were few study tools available, other than looking at the potential habitat and dividing it by the average hunting territory each cat would require.

When a biologist, Tom McCarthy, spent seven years doing field research in this part of Mongolia, he concluded that a snow leopard ranges over 150 square miles, depending on the availability of ibex, antelope, wild Argali sheep and marmots.

Scientists are looking at hi-tech methods such as genetic fingerprinting and photo-traps for a more reliable population estimate, vital in forming conservation strategies. Two years ago, environmentalists from 17 countries met at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle to form the first global plan to save the snow leopard. A key issue was developing ways to persuade those who live with the predator to help the conservation effort.

Here in the Gobi-Altai, the nomads have little affection for the snow leopard, and see it is a living vampire, a notion Tom McCarthy says is not founded on fact. The trust is also trying to change the image of the snow leopard by using snow leopard clubs to teach children the necessity of conservation.

Doljinsuren well remembers four years ago, when his group began teaching the nomads how to wash and thread their wool. "Getting people to trust us was a big step," he says. "The first year, the products were not saleable, but we bought them anyway."

The International Snow Leopard Trust is promoting other efforts, hoping the nomads will help protect the habitat, the prey and the animals themselves. In Pakistan, herders have been persuaded to pay into insurance funds to compensate herders who lose livestock to wolves and snow leopards. Another project aims to help herders with veterinary advice to help reduce the high number of livestock lost to disease - about 20 per cent - so they care less about the much smaller numbers killed by predators.

In Kyrgyzstan, wildlife rangers who earn $15 a month are being offered incentives such as school fees for their children if they protect the animals and their prey from poachers.

Saving the snow leopard also needs cross-border solutions and experts from India and Pakistan are discussing how to work together in the disputed Kashmir region. Indian environmentalists plan to copy the schemes that worked in Pakistan and the Pakistanis are interested in the handicraft schemes started in Mongolia four years ago.

Purevjur, a Mongolian biologist, who has spent 17 years tracking the 1,200 or so snow leopards in Mongolia, thinks the population has stabilised in the past few years. "Maybe it is even beginning to increase slowly," she says.

But the nomads killed about six snow leopards in the Gobi Altai last year and as many in other parts of the country. Those caught face fines of 1m Tughriks, a large enough fine to wipe out their capital, measured in livestock.

The biggest problem facing the conservationists and the herders has been the unusually severe weather, and over-grazing. Dr Mizhiddorj is a director of the Gobi reserve and a biologist who studied the snow leopard with Tom McCarthy. "There's been hardly any rain the past seven years, just a little in May, and the average temperatures keep rising," he says. "It is hard to pinpoint the reason but perhaps it is to do with global warming."

On the way to Bayantooroi, we stopped by the ruins of the Nomuun Khaan Buddhist monastery which stands by what was once a river and a lake that helped support a thriving population of monks and farmers. Gelegbuu, our 45- year-old driver, says: "When I was small, children and lambs could hide in the grass it was so high; flocks of cranes and pelicans covered the lake."

The drought in a long-dry region is having a severe impact on animals and people. Half of the province's two million head of livestock have died in the past few years of drought, leaving the plains littered with whitening bones. Gelegbuu says: "If the drought goes on, everyone will leave."

Lester Brown, a environmentalist for the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, suspects that over-grazing, led by demand for cashmere wool, is largely to blame for the drought, hurting farmers and herders in many parts of snow leopard territory. Herders doubled the size of their cashmere goat herds in the 1990s. "There is more pressure on resources so the deserts are expanding," Mr Brown says.

For Surengerel, the $60 she has earnt for family from handicrafts has become a vital asset. The snow leopards are now beginning to protect the people. Doljinsuren says: "Of course, people are glad to see me. Everyone wants to learn now."