Snow leopards and falcons and hamsters, oh my!

A rare falcon sighting in Mongolia’s Tost Tosonbumba Nature Reserve illustrates how protecting snow leopard habitat safeguards other wildlife as well. Once leased out for mining exploration and protected only after six years of effort by our team and the region’s local communities, this protected area is an important haven for many species beyond snow leopards.

Last month we shared exciting updates about the snow leopard residents of Mongolia’s Tost Reserve. Our researchers have monitored the population of this iconic species for nearly two decades. But this protected area in the Gobi Desert is home to more than just snow leopards, and for the second time in a decade, we have observed a “first sighting” of an animal previously not known to occur in Mongolia.

This spring, a nesting pair of Barbary Falcons was observed in Tost for just the second time. The first spotting happened in 2018 when our team saw a nesting pair and three chicks, which would soon be documented as the first time Barbary falcons were recorded nesting in Mongolia. The initial discovery was almost accidental; our researcher who saw them is a self-professed “crappy birder.” Subsequently, renowned Mongolian ornithologist Professor Gombobaatar Sundev confirmed the identity of this bird of prey. This discovery was published in a paper that changed the status of the species in Mongolia from “Passage Migrant” to “Breeding Visitor.”

The Barbary Falcon is considered a subspecies of the Peregrine Falcon and feeds chiefly on birds. Breeding pairs typically nest on ledges on high cliff faces, laying eggs in nests built by other species. We are excited that Tost is home to a breeding pair of this beautiful bird rarely seen in Mongolia. Our team has seen Barbary falcons at more than one location in Tost, so there are likely a few pairs in the mountains.

A similar “first spotting” also occurred in 2013 when our team encountered the rare and largely unknown Kam dwarf hamster in Tost. It had previously been found only in Western China. Our team discovered the Kam dwarf hamster in Tost during a disease ecology study and DNA analyses to identify rodents sampled confirmed its occurrence in Mongolia. “It’s quite likely that these rare and elusive species have larger distribution ranges than is currently known. A combination of field observations and DNA analyses can greatly help in this situation,” says Gustaf Samelius, Assistant Director of Science.

These two instances are examples of Tost’s importance as a biologically diverse habitat and a hotspot for conservation within Mongolia. They also showcase the benefits of long-term, sustained research in designated areas. Both discoveries were possible only because researchers, rangers and scientists consistently monitor Tost’s wildlife.

Beyond these unique sightings, Tost (and the Gobi Desert more broadly) is a vital hub for both common and rare species. A few years ago, the entire mountain ranges of Tost were threatened due to mining. It took years of joint effort between our team and Tost’s local communities to convince the Government to declare Tost a State Nature Reserve. Today, the region represents a great example of a reserve that is co-managed together with the local communities.

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In addition to snow leopards, falcons and hamsters, this desert landscape is also home to the Pallas’s cat and an abundance of prey species like argali and ibex. Just west of Tost, you can also find the Gobi Bear (found in Gobi A Strictly Protected Area and its immediate surroundings) alongside wild camels and wild horses. Our Senior Scientist Dr. Orjan Johansson sums this experience up nicely, “Perhaps most importantly, these revelations remind us that we never stop discovering and identifying new things about familiar places.” 

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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, the Government of Mongolia, and the Mongolian Academy of Sciences for their support.

Additional special thanks to Gombobaatar Sundev and his colleagues at the National University of Mongolia and the Mongolian Ornithological Society.


  1. They’re existence in such a hostile environment is amazing, even more so when other animals appear. It gives hope to wildlife everywhere.

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