Wildlife Health in South Gobi, Mongolia

Veterinarian, Dr. Carol Esson, has recently completed her PhD at the James Cook University in Australia on possible disease transmission between snow leopards and other wildlife. She shares with us stories from the field and how she found herself studying how disease could threaten snow leopards.

What inspired you to get involved with snow leopard conservation?

My work-related passion has always been to combine wildlife health and conservation. To me it seemed the ideal way to work in conservation. During my veterinary degree, one of my professors ran trips to Bhutan every year to work on snow leopard conservation. I spent all my holidays working in order to save up and join one of the trips. I’ve always had a “thing” for the big cats and snow leopards just seemed even more interesting, given that we knew very little about the species. I never did end up going on one of my professor’s trips—sometimes life gets in the way of plans. However, I never gave up on the dream and when the opportunity arose to go on a field trip to Mongolia’s South Gobi desert and work with snow leopards I jumped at the opportunity.

Please tell us a little more about this experience! How was your fieldwork experience in the South Gobi?

 Initially I was volunteering to help Orjan Johansson, Snow Leopard Trust’s Senior Researcher, with his PhD project. As a veterinarian, I was providing support for Orjan during snow leopard collaring. After several discussions it became clear that there was a need to study the health of wild snow leopards. Four snow leopards had been found dead over short period of time and the cause of death had never been established. This gave a real purpose to my study. Was there an underlying disease threat to the snow leopards which may have been adding to other threats the cats have to face such as habitat destruction, poaching and retaliatory killings?

My volunteering adventure then turned into the basis of my PhD. After consulting with scientists at the Snow Leopard Trust and my supervisors, we decided to structure my PhD following a One Health framework. What this means is that “the big picture” is considered: how all components in the environment could impact snow leopards through disease, including the people and other species that live there. So rather than just catching and sampling snow leopards to test for pathogens, I selected several components of the environment that snow leopards interact with and tested those as well.

Dr. Carol and the team taking samples from livestock in the South Gobi.

For example, I tested waterholes and wells as possible sources for disease transfer. With limited water sources in the Gobi desert, many species come and drink from the same waterholes, not just snow leopards. I sampled rodents as they occur over the whole study area and are well known carriers of disease and can inhabit people’s homes. I also sampled herders’ dogs as they had contact with wildlife and people, and I sampled the herders’ goats, which are a major food (and income) source for herder families, thus also providing a link between wildlife and people.  Snow leopards occasionally prey on domestic goats, and the goats graze on the same pasture as ibex, snow leopard’s primary prey species. It is quite a complex web and I am sure that I only touched the surface.

The actual fieldwork was both amazing and challenging at the same time. I will never forget my first snow leopard collaring experience. Our alarm went off in the ger/yurt (traditional Mongolian home) just before midnight, alerting us that a snow leopard was nearby. It was a magnificent snow leopard called “Aztai” that had been collared before. I remember it was dark, with the wind constantly blowing. We call this the Gobi nasal drip—freezing, so it was difficult for fingers to function to take blood samples from Aztai by the light of a head torch! Meanwhile, I was feeling totally privileged to be doing something to help in the conservation of this enigmatic species, rather than just talking or thinking about it. Despite the rather uncomfortable environmental conditions in the freezing and windy dead of night, I wouldn’t have swapped places with even David Attenborough himself!

So how was my fieldwork experience in the Gobi? A period of my life I will never forget and always cherish. Like all fieldwork there were times when you wondered why you were there and what were you doing, to be balanced with knowing that you were doing something that would hopefully make a difference to a species survival.

What’s your vision for your future as a conservationist or researcher?

I would like to think that my training and skills can be applied to a wide range of projects to aid in conservation of all species. I want to continue working as a field/wildlife vet in research, to increase our understanding and knowledge of the animals we share this planet with. I always have been and always will be an advocate for taking care of and looking after our environment and all it contains, as without it there will be no future.

Sampling the water holes and streams in Tost, South Gobi.

Read more about Carol’s work:

Are Diseases a Potential New Threat for Wild Snow Leopards?

Esson C., Skerratt L.F., Berger L., Malmsten J. Strand T., Lundkvist Å., Järhult J.D., Michaux J., Mijiddorj T., Bayrakci-Smith R., Mishra C. and Johansson. Ö. 2019. Health and zoonotic infections of snow leopards Panthera uncia in the South Gobi desert of Mongolia. Infection Ecology and Epidemiology 19: 1604063.)

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