Since it became a state protected area in 2016, we have shared a lot of information about Tost Tosonbomba Nature Reserve in Mongolia’s South Gobi. That’s because it is home to a thriving snow leopard population. We focus our collaring efforts and regularly deploy dozens of research cameras in this rugged habitat. But how many snow leopards does this area sustain? Let’s explore the latest data.
Between August to December 2021, our team surveyed 2,185 square kilometers of snow leopard habitat in the reserve. In that expanse, 43 cameras were set up by Tost community rangers, maximizing coverage and selecting the best sites for photographing snow leopards, typically around mountain passes and ridges. As a snow leopard passes by, the motion triggered cameras get triggered, leading to valuable ‘selfies’. In the 121 days that cameras were active, we recorded 239 unique camera capture events (one “capture event” = one visit by a cat).
239 individual cats seems like a lot of snow leopards!
That number represents instances of snow leopards caught on camera, with many repeats – not 239 individual snow leopards. However, this is the largest number of camera capture events ever achieved in Tost.
So how many cats are living in Tost?
Our researchers confirmed a total of 21 resident adult snow leopards observed on our cameras. We defined resident adults as those that were captured on cameras for at least three years, as well as breeding females. Since our last survey in 2020, only two resident individuals were not accounted for in 2021. These two snow leopards were identified as M16 “Half Moon” and a female we call Nimka. We can’t yet determine the status of these two. It is possible that they remained undetected on our cameras by chance, died or moved away. Nimka had new cubs and so it is possible that she was not captured by our cameras because she used a smaller home range due to her dependents. We hope to be able to confirm their status next year.
Does this mean the reserve is home to twenty-one snow leopards?
Yes and no. 21 confirmed residents were accounted for in our data, but there were seven other snow leopards that we identified as well. We call these nonresidents or “floaters”. Floaters are adult or subadult snow leopards that may include transients traveling across the region. In fact, one of them was from the mountain range of Nemegt, 40km away! Two others were confirmed as recently dispersed subadults, possibly looking to establish a territory of their own. The total number of confirmed residents does not include cubs or subadults still following their mother.
Who are the current resident snow leopards?
The males of Tost
Eight resident males were detected and identified in 2021. Looking back through our data since 2009, we can see that many of their home range boundaries appear unchanged year over year. Like many animals, snow leopards mark and defend their home ranges. From the map above you will notice that there is relatively little overlap between ranges.
- Of note, Kurzawa was caught on camera a record 32 separate times! He continues to dominate the northern canyon, as he has since at least 2016.
- Tsetsen continues to occupy the western reaches of Tost, where he has roamed since we first detected him in 2013.
- M15, or “The Dude” still traverses his central territory where we have detected him since 2018.
- M13, or Nachin Devekh, at 12 years of age, is the oldest recorded male in Tost. He was born in 2010 and has changed his home range several times since we first met him.
Meet the males
The females of Tost
13 confirmed resident females were detected, five of whom had new cubs born last year. Three of the females were accompanied by subadults. You will notice from the map that female snow leopards have, on average, smaller ranges. Female snow leopards typically share their territory with at least one male. They will also significantly reduce their home range during denning when they give birth.
- Two of our most well-known snow leopard mothers, Dagina and Anu, were observed again in 2021. They are both 13 years old and the oldest females of known age in Tost. Dagina was observed with three new cubs.
- F13 (daughter of Presnel and considered Dagina’s “grandcub”) was captured traveling with a subadult, her first offspring.
- F14, or “One Eye,” was still observed limping (and without her right eye). We photographed her just once traveling with a subadult cub. She is proving to be resilient.
- F10 Khuurhun Ach and F12 Willian, were both observed with new cubs. This is F10’s fourth documented litter since we first observed her in 2015.
- Guerrero was observed with two subadults, possibly her first litter since we observed her with subadults in 2017.
Meet the females
Camera trap data and what we can glean from it showcase the importance of consistent and regular monitoring that we conduct through our long-term ecological study in Mongolia. Year after year we are able to track individual snow leopards in this vital snow leopard habitat thanks to the crucial work done by our researchers and Tost’s invaluable community rangers.
This Long-Term Ecological Study is in collaboration with Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation in Mongolia and Snow Leopard Trust with special thanks to the Ministry for Environment and Green Development, Government of Mongolia, and the Mongolian Academy of Sciences for their support.
SLT would also like to acknowledge: Acton Family Giving, Bioparc Zoo de Doue la Fontaine, David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, Idaho Falls Zoo at Tautphaus Park, Kolmarden Zoo, Korkeasaari Zoo, Nordens Ark, Play for Nature, Tierpark Berlin, The Big Cat Sanctuary/Wildlife Heritage Foundation, Tulsa Zoo, Whitley Fund for Nature, Zoo Basel, Zoo Dresden, and Zoo New England.
Special thanks to Enkhburen (Buren) Nyam, Choidogjamts “Choidog” Byambasuren, Pujii Lkhagvajav, Justine Shanti Alexander, and the Tost community rangers for all their work in implementing the camera trap research and painstakingly identifying these individual snow leopards!
Thank you to all the many committed partners who have supported our research in Mongolia along with our Long-term Ecological Study since it began in 2008. We could not do this work without you.