The Dating Tree

Mongolian herder woman Sainaa shares her perspective on snow leopards and her experience with community-based conservation programs.

My name is Sainaa.

I live the cold winter months in the northwestern most part of Mongolia called the Yamaat Valley. I am part of a community of herders who live at Yamaat Mountain in Uvs province, which is home to many wild animals. My husband and I raise goats for our livelihood, and one of the challenges of living here is to protect our goats from wild predators. This undertaking is very important to us. Yet, we must coexist with the wildlife without making trouble to them, so we try not to herd our livestock into wildlife habitat.

A bird’s eye view over Sainaa’s home in the Yamaat Valley. Photo by Joseph Pontecorvo

My husband has a job as a ranger and I frequently help him with his work. Uvs province is a unique mountainous area with a forest of large, old trees that grow along a riverbed. Although the forest is in a protected area, people illegally cut trees down here. Many people also illegally hunt wildlife here. 

When my husband is absent, I visit his survey sites and collect wildlife data. We collect data on snow leopards, ibex, and deer that live on Yamaat Mountain. Snow leopards typically leave three types of marks around the mountain. They scratch trees with their claws, disperse some of their odor on the rocks, and leave their pugmarks in the snow and dirt. Sometimes they even leave scrapes on the ground with their hind legs, and occasionally we find traces of their scat.

Sainaa and her husband often go on ranger surveys together, checking on the well-being of wildlife and domestic herds. Photo by Joseph Pontecorvo  

Once in a while, my husband and I go on surveys together. We look for snow leopard marks and we check where ibex and deer are pasturing to note whether they are calm or not. During our surveys, we noticed there is a tree where snow leopards always come and leave their signs. We call it the Dating Tree because snow leopards leave their scratch marks on the tree for one another. We understand this is a snow leopard’s way of communicating.

When we first observed the Dating Tree, we found fresh snow leopard scratches that were perhaps two or three days old. There were also pugmarks of two snow leopards walking together in the snow. We found feces as well—a third sign that snow leopards were communicating at the Dating Tree.

Sainaa and her husband examine the Dating Tree for signs of snow leopard interaction. Photo by Joseph Pontecorvo

Before becoming involved with the Snow Leopard Trust, I used to think snow leopards were a threat. I hated snow leopards for attacking and eating our livestock, and wished they would become extinct. However, my point of view toward snow leopards has completely changed since I became part of the Snow Leopard Enterprises (SLE) program.

A snow leopard visits the Dating Tree at night, leaving its mark on the notorious site. Photo by Joseph Pontecorvo

In 2000, I attended a community meeting that the Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation (SLCF) held to introduce SLE to our region. I attended the meeting with my three small children. My oldest was eight years-old at the time and my youngest was nearly one. I liked the idea behind the SLE program, so I attended my first training in 2001, where I learned how to make felted wool products. Two years later, I participated in a workshop hosted by SLCF and the Snow Leopard Trust on how to develop and manage SLE conservation groups within my community.

I encouraged many other herder families to join the SLE programto increase their livelihoods by using their own renewable resources rather than putting stress on their natural habitat. As our community began making money from crafting small felted mice and ornaments, our incomes increased. We didn’t need to turn to illegal logging to get money. Instead, we could use our livestock materials and stay home making handicrafts. Cutting, carrying, and searching for wood is hard work. Making handicrafts is peaceful. 

Sainaa’s community is just one of the 62 communities across Mongolia, Pakistan, India, and Kyrgyzstan that participates in Snow Leopard Enterprises. Photo by Joseph Pontecorvo

The local people were not the only beings benefitting from SLE—the wildlife around us was benefitting as well. Over time, I saw a decrease in ibex hunting. My husband also noticed a decrease in hunting, realizing that our community was honoring the SLE contract, which dictates that any bonuses will be lost if any ibex are killed.

Throughout the past two decades, I have become more and more empowered to advocate against illegal hunting and logging in Yamaat Valley. SLE has given me the resources to become a conservation leader with important responsibilities, and it has afforded my family with some wonderful opportunities. With the income from SLE, I was able to pay for my children’s college tuition. I have also had the chance to travel within Mongolia and internationally to talk about SLE with other herder communities. And in 2015, the Yamaat herder group that I lead was awarded “National Outstanding Herder Organization of 2015” for their extensive conservation work. 

Thanks to Sainaa’s leadership, community members in the Yamaat Valley have adopted more positive attitudes toward the snow leopards that share their valley. Photo by Joseph Pontecorvo

Since my community started participating in SLE and attending conservation seminars and events, our views have shifted entirely. We know now that snow leopards are an important species to nature and are an indicator of nature itself. We are happy that snow leopards are present in Yamaat Valley and frequent the Dating Tree, because it indicates a balanced mountain ecosystem. My community is very glad to be participating in the SLE program, and in a sense, we have snow leopards to thank for providing us with this opportunity.

We are very appreciative of Sainaa for letting us tell her story. Thank you to SLT Board Member Gayle Podrabsky for giving us a sneak peak into Sainaa’s life. Gayle’s company, Fidget Films, will be releasing their ‘Living with Snow Leopards’ docuseries later this year, featuring women who are part of SLT community-based conservation programs.


  1. What a beautiful story of a remote area of planet earth. People like Sainaa are very important for the co existing of human and wildlife with their understanding of this important matter.Sainaa is a beauty of mongolian mountains with a beautiful commitment with nature and snow leopards who lives their.

  2. I loved reading Sainaa’s relationship/partnership with the Snow Leopard Trust conservation group. Her leadership in the areas where she lives is invaluable. She is responsible for establishing a group of women who craft felt animal ornaments. In fact, I have a felt snow leopard felt ornament that hangs in my den. Sainaa has been active for 20 years working with their community to educate the members to see the Snow Leopard as a vital part of the environmental health of their area, and a friend not an enemy.

    1. Thank you, Janet! I completely agree. Sainaa is an integral part of our conservation community. And maybe one of the women that Sainaa trained or perhaps Sainaa herself crafted the ornament in your den. 🙂

      1. This is one of the most beautiful and inspiring stories on conservation I have read in a long time, and it shows that with education and an open heart, man can learn to understand and appreciate that our beloved wildlife and us are truly meant to live together, in peace & harmony….it brings tears to my eyes..❤❤

  3. Wonderful story. Gives one hope that there is still a chance for the Snow Leopard to thrive and have a happy future in Mongolia.

  4. What a wonderful story and precious insight into the lives of these tremendous people learning to live and thrive in balance with their environment! This is one of the main reasons I support Snow Leopard Trust – it is imperative to provide opportunities for indigenous people to transition to sustainable economies that protect their environment for the future of all life on earth.

    Thank you, Sainaa and all who are involved in this program. And thank you for sharing your story with the world!

    I, too, feel connected to you all as I see the beautiful felted carpets you’ve made all around my house. They are conversation-starters, works of art…and my house cats are infatuated with them! I’ve given them as gifts and suggested them for Christmas presents and it feels so good to know that the funds are being well used and appreciated.

    Thank you so much – with warmest regards,

    1. Thank you, Diane! It makes me happy to hear the felted carpets connect you and your loved ones with our community conservation work. And it’s an added bonus that your kitties love them too!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.