The ‘Snow Leopard Whisperer’

Few people have ever seen a wild snow leopard - let alone come face to face with one. But Swedish researcher Örjan Johansson has gotten closer to these elusive cats than anyone else before him. Meet the 'Snow Leopard Whisperer'!

Imagine a steep and craggy land of red rock mountains and dusty plains—like the surface of Mars. The sun beats down on the shadeless ground and the wind whips sand into gigantic storms. Herds of goats and camels mill outside of small yurts made of wool. These are the Tost Mountains of Mongolia, and somewhere hidden in the rocky hills is a mysterious cat—a snow leopard. Perfectly camouflaged, able to leap straight up ledges at 30 feet in a single bound, the snow leopard is king in these mountains. And yet, few have ever seen one. Some snow leopard researchers have gone their entire careers without seeing one in the wild…and then came Örjan.

Who is this Örjan guy?

By the 21st century humans had explored virtually every terrain on the planet and studied most of the key species.  Except the snow leopard.  In fact, until 2008, snow leopards were one of the least studied—and least understood–of the big cats. Where do snow leopards travel? How big is their home range? How do they hunt?  No one knew.  In 2008, the Snow Leopard Trust launched the first long-term study of snow leopard in the Tost Mountains of southern Mongolia. Our goal was—and still remains—to uncover the mysteries behind the cat and learn what they need to survive in order to better conserve them for posterity.

One of our first aims: get GPS collars on snow leopards and track their movements. That’s when we hired Örjan, expert immobilization specialist—aka, the guy who could catch and collar anything. To us he became ‘the snow leopard whisperer.’ He could think like the cats and sometimes he even acted like them. Over the next nine years, he spent over 1,000 days in Tost studying snow leopards.

“During this time I have broken an arm, exhausted a knee and bent my nose. The longest period alone was 45 consecutive days, the longest period without a shower was 207 consecutive days. In total I have driven a little more than 16,000 km on a dirt bike. It feels a bit as if I am a new person after all experiences, cultural differences and adventures out here. In a way it is true – my combined weight loss for all trips is almost equal to my total body weight so I guess you could say that at least this is a new body. It sure looks older and more scarred. We have collected more data than any other snow leopard study, now it is time to start analyzing it. I hope that our efforts will increase the chances for the snow leopard and their ecosystems to sustain.”                                                                                                                                                                  –Örjan, 2012

Want to meet this guy? Come hear about Örjan’s adventures, find out how he was able to collar snow leopards, and see what incredible new insights he has been able to learn about these amazing cats on October 7th in Seattle!

To-date Örjan has:
  • Put GPS collars on 23 snow leopards—more than all other past snow leopard studies combined
  • Discovered the first snow leopard den site in the wild
  • Developed the safest way to catch and collar snow leopards—now considered ‘best practice’ in the field
  • Helped author 5 peer reviewed publications shedding light on snow leopard home range size, diet and population size

A big deal

The Tost Mountains aren’t just any mountains, and this research isn’t ‘just cool data.’ The Tost Mountains are in some of the richest habitat in Mongolia, and Mongolia has the second largest snow leopard population in the world. So if you want to study the cats—this is the place to be. The information we’re gathering is being used every day to improve and protect snow leopards from going extinct in the wild. Since our study began, we’ve been sharing our learning with local communities and the Mongolian Government to improve snow leopard conservation efforts. In 2016, in part thanks to our research and understanding about the region, the Mongolian Parliament declared Tost Mountains a federal Nature Reserve—the first state Protected Area in the country designated specifically for snow leopards.

Great moments in Örjan history

Orjan and his team find the first snow leopard dens site in the wild. Örjan makes what may be the first ‘snow leopard selfie stick’ with tape and a camera (and a dash of MacGuyver know-how) to peek into the den.

If only Örjan had applied for a patent immediately…
Peeking into the den…

While putting collars out, Örjan investigates the truth behind the myth of the ‘Mongolia Death Worm’

Örjan experiences a sandstorm—and an unconventional way to remove sand lodged in your eye—don’t try this at home!

Örjan spends the night with two snow leopards!

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