The 7,284km2 Tost Tosonbumba Nature Reserve in the South Gobi Desert is the first protected area dedicated to conserving snow leopards in Mongolia. Bayarjargal Agvaantseren, the Mongolia programme director for The Snow Leopard Trust, recognised the need to protect this big cat and its habitat from the mining industry and persuaded the government to take action.

The activist became interested in snow leopards while working as a translator for wild cat conservation organisation Panthera.

By learning about the species, she was inspired to create Snow Leopard Enterprises, an economic programme for herders that share snow leopard habitat, with the aim of reducing the motivation behind poaching.

“Participating communities pledge to keep the big cats in their area safe from harm, in exchange for a bonus, and make handicrafts from the wool of their livestock, which are then sold internationally to boost their income,” she explains.

Tracking snow leopards in Tost Tosonbumba Nature Reserve, Mongolia. © Goldman Environmental Prize
Tracking snow leopards in Tost Tosonbumba Nature Reserve, Mongolia. © Goldman Environmental Prize

In 2009, the conservationist started the first long-term ecological study in the South Gobi Desert. “One December morning, a study snow leopard was killed by herders defending their livestock,” she says. “It felt like the cat was my friend.”

Following discussions with local people about what had happened and how they could prevent it from occurring again, Agvaantseren established a livestock insurance programme.

By working closely with herder communities and gaining their trust, she was later able to lead them in their campaign to persuade the Mongolian government to establish a new snow leopard nature reserve in a major mining hub.

“Retaliatory killing is a problem for this Vulnerable species but mining is the worst threat,” she says. Mining operations fragment and destroy snow leopard habitat and drive nomadic communities into big cat territory, resulting in conflict.

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“It was a real challenge for us to create the reserve, as there is very little awareness of the snow leopard amongst decision-makers,” she says.

Snow leopard. © Snow Leopard Trust
Snow leopard. © Snow Leopard Trust

In 2010, Tost Tosonbumba was established as a local protected area but still had 37 mining licences. “Under local protection, we were able to revoke some licences and prevent more from being issued in the area,” says Agvaantseren. “We then campaigned for a higher level of protection.”

It was declared a nature reserve in April 2016, with an order to revoke all existing mining licences. “We kept the pressure on the government to ensure the process was complete and, by June 2018, the remaining 17 licences in the area were revoked.”

Nature reserves in Mongolia are not funded by the state. Therefore, Agvaantseren is now working to establish a plan to enforce its protection. She says, “It has been a long process for all involved to get to where we are today but it shows what people can achieve.”

This article originally appeared in BBC Wildlife. Take a look inside the current issue and find out how to subscribe.

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Main image: Bayarjargal Agvaantseren. © Goldman Environmental Prize


Jo PriceDeputy editor, BBC Wildlife Magazine