It has been at least a decade since Snow Leopard Trust has conducted research on snow leopard populations in the area, so, despite all the preparatory work and research-based assumptions, our field team was not sure that our new cameras would find a snow leopard in the Great Gobi A Strictly Protected Area. The reserve, one of the largest in the world, certainly may not seem to be brimming with life upon first observation, and we knew the area to be low-occupancy at best for snow leopards based on recent surveys. But we remained hopeful nonetheless and were excited to add this new location to the PAWS initiative.
This extremely arid desert receives little rain and yearly temperatures can range from 40°C in summer to -40°C in winter. The steppe landscape you can see from these photos goes on, seemingly unending, for hundreds of miles, yet despite these harsh conditions, life clings on.
In fact, some of the most vulnerable species of mammals on earth occupy this desert, hence its protected status. While pouring through the camera rolls from this region, the snow leopard seemed to elude us. But we were delighted with what we did see.
A herd of Mongolian khulan (or if you prefer, wild ass) grazed alongside one of the camera traps at night. They have seen their historic range shrink dramatically in recent years and are now only found in the Gobi. Some curious hares, hedgehogs, and stone martens scurried by the cameras as well.
As we painstakingly clicked through the photos, one by one, no snow leopard had yet revealed itself, though the critically endangered Gobi bear did make a few appearances. We counted at least five distinct sightings of the bear over the course of a few months, which renewed our hope.
Park rangers have been monitoring the bear populations at watering holes for years, but this method is not as useful at estimating snow leopard populations, The Gobi bear has also seen its range nearly disappear, and as few as 50 individuals live solely in this reserve. So this next image was especially exciting, as we can confirm at least one more bear was born this past year.
We continued pouring through the images, hoping to be as surprised as this fox if and when we would be fortunate enough to discover a snow leopard in this remotest of regions.
Lynxes, wolves, ibexes, and argali; with just a few cameras we have captured a full range of life in this desert. Greeted by all these big and small mammals, herbivores, and carnivores, it would be hard to be disappointed with what we had seen. One of our cameras even captured a photo of the Bactrian camel, yet another mammal on the verge of extinction that lives exclusively in this desert.
And so, after hours of searching through thousands of photos, many just of grass and rock, it seemed our favorite cat might have eluded our camera traps during this survey, despite evidence of their presence. It is important to note that absence of evidence is not always an evidence of absence, which is why we rely on sophisticated statistical tools to estimate how many individual snow leopards may have eluded the cameras during a particular survey. That said, sometimes there are just too few in an area to get photographed at all.
But upon a second inspection, our efforts were vindicated! Among the final 20 images on the last camera roll, was a snow leopard.
In terms of quality, it’s certainly not the best snow leopard photo we have ever shared, but it is a special one. Here is evidence in black and white, that in the Great Gobi A Strictly Protected Area, another snow leopard stalks the crags and rocks of this awe-inspiring land, and in the company of several other threatened species.