Bayarjargal Agvaantseren has spent 20 years traveling to remote regions of Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, fighting to protect native snow leopards. The 50-year-old teacher-turned-activist persuaded Mongolia’s parliament in 2016 to create the world’s first national reserve specifically for the endangered animal. It links two existing protected areas to create a continuous safe zone for the species covering 31,000 square miles, where over a third of the country’s estimated 1,000 snow leopards live.
The creation of the reserve led to the banning of all mining in one of the animal’s key habitats. In a country so dependent on extractive industries — coal and minerals make up 85 percent of exports — her achievement is astounding. She attributes it to the support of remote goat-herding communities, people who she converted from regarding leopards as their enemies to patroling the reserve to protect them.
In April, Bayara’s work saving the snow leopards of Mongolia won her the Goldman Environment Prize, an annual award that honors grassroots environmental activists from six continents. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Bayara talks about how she convinced indigenous communities to work with her, the major threats still facing snow leopards, and how after two decades working on their protection, she has yet to see the elusive mountain animal in the wild.
Yale Environment 360: How did your love affair with snow leopards start?
Bayarjargal Agvaantseren: I grew up in a small village in northern Mongolia, where my father was a teacher. After studying languages and literature in the capital Ulaanbaatar, I worked as a teacher and a translator for the leading American snow leopard researcher Tom McCarthy. For him, I interviewed herders in southern Mongolia about their attitudes to the leopards. I was hooked. They became my life’s work. In 2007, I created the Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation in Mongolia to carry on the research and expand community-based conservation.
e360: Snow leopards are known as the ghosts of the mountains. Tell us about them.
Agvaantseren: There are only between 4,500 and 7,000 of them left in the world, usually hiding and hunting in remote mountain regions of Asia. Mongolia has the second largest population in the world, after China, estimated at between 1,000 and 1,200. We think around a quarter of the Mongolian population lives in the mountains of the South Gobi region, close to the border with China. It is a critical habitat and migration route for the leopards, with one of the densest populations in the world.
Many [of the leopards] live in two national parks — the Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park and Great Gobi, a Strictly Protected Area — where they find their main prey species like the Siberian ibex and argali, a wild mountain sheep. They are very elusive. In my 20 years of work in these remote areas, I haven’t yet seen one in the wild. But our radio collar studies show that they move around a lot. And some live in the mountain pastures between the parks, where they sometimes prey on the goat herds. This is where we created the new reserve.
“We wanted to work with the herders, to bring them around by addressing the economic losses they suffered from the leopards.”
e360: So there has been conflict.
Agvaantseren: Yes. When I was working with Tom, the herders told me that snow leopards were their enemies, because they raided the herds and damaged their livelihoods. There is some poaching, for pelts as well as bones for medicines. But most of the killings of leopards by the herders are retribution for loss of livestock.
This is understandable. I never blamed them. The losses of goats and other livestock are not huge overall. But for a poor herder, losing even a few goats is a big loss.
I remember in 2009, when our foundation had just started its long-term study of snow leopards using GPS collars, I had a call from our research camp saying one of our first two study cats had been found dead. We knew the animal well from tracking it. He was like a friend to us. We had given him a name: Bayartai. But he had entered a livestock holding pen and killed 26 animals. That was a very big loss to the farmer, so he killed the leopard in retribution.
This experience set us thinking about how we could help end the conflict. We didn’t want to use the force of law. We wanted to work with the herders, to bring them around by addressing the economic losses that they suffered from the leopards.
One way forward was to help them diversify their incomes. From the time I first started working with them over 20 years ago, I wanted to help them increase their income by making handicrafts such as toys, bags, and necklaces from wool and other local materials, and finding markets that cut out middlemen. We set up Snow Leopard Enterprises, which now sells the handicrafts around the world through the U.S.-based Snow Leopard Trust.
We also looked at livestock insurance to protect herders financially from losses due to leopard attacks. In Mongolia, people don’t usually insure anything. So we set up a scheme. It is very local. For the first five years we supported the funding, but now they run it themselves. Every subscriber has to commit to protecting the snow leopards and to leaving graze-free areas to help the leopards’ natural prey, which should reduce attacks on their herds.
e360: So what is the main threat to the snow leopards now?
Agvaantseren: About 10 years ago, we identified a growing new threat to both the leopards and the herders: mining. Mines take leopard habitat and frighten away their prey, while also reducing the herders’ pastures. The end result is also to increase conflicts between leopards and herders by driving herds into the leopard habitat.
In 2009, we found that almost the entire mountain area where we worked with the herders had been licensed for prospecting. We knew by then that the area also had one of the highest densities of snow leopards in the world. So we decided to fight. We became political activists as much as researchers.
We began by telling the local people what was going on – that their pasture land was being given away. Then we approached the local government in Gurvantes district. The surrounding area already had active mines, so we suggested that we should keep some land back. They responded positively, and agreed to create a locally protected area, which was formed in 2010.
“Mining has been a booming business. The mining interests in Mongolia are much stronger than the conservation interests.”
Creating the reserve stopped new mine licenses from being issued. We hoped the old existing licenses, which had not been taken up, would soon expire. But then we discovered there was a loophole. The mining companies were selling old licenses to each other, which automatically extended their lives. We would never be free of the threat. So we realized we needed a higher level of protection: a state reserve that could rescind all mining licenses. We began a national campaign.
e360: You decided to take on the mining industry? That must have been a huge challenge.
Agvaantseren: Yes. Mining has been a booming business in Mongolia in recent decades. Especially in South Gobi, where there are huge coal mines like the Talvan Tolgoi mine, one of the world’s biggest. We knew it would be tough to halt further expansion. The mining interests in Mongolia are, of course, politically much stronger than the conservation interests.
Things looked bad for a while. During this time, one of our most charismatic researchers died mysteriously. After a series of attacks and threats against him, when he was told to keep away from South Gobi, his body was found floating in a lake.
But our collaboration with local people gave us strength to carry on. The herders told us that they had once expected the mining industry would bring them benefits. But they had come to realize that instead it made their livelihoods vulnerable because they lost pastures. The trust that we built up with them really helped.
The cabinet turned down our proposal to turn the local reserve into a state reserve three times. But we had gotten lots of public awareness that this land needed to be protected, and two women members of the national parliament supported us strongly. In 2016, everything came together. There was an election coming up. We used that. Politicians wanted votes and made promises. I still wonder that if we would have won without the election. We will never know, but soon afterwards the state reserve was declared. And all the mining licenses in the reserve have now been revoked, the last one late last year.
The campaign took six years, but I feel like we were just in time.
e360: So how is the reserve progressing?
Agvaantseren: The Tost Tosonbumba Nature Reserve covers 2,800 square miles. Together, the two national parks and the reserve now create a continuous area of leopard habitat covering 31,000 square miles, an area almost the size of Maine. But the reserve is managed very differently. The parks are strictly protected, and funded by the state. Whereas the reserve — the first reserve anywhere in the world dedicated to the snow leopard — gets no state funding, and is under the control of our Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation.
We manage it with the local communities, and the herders can continue their livelihoods. There are more than 200 households in the reserve, and more than 30,000 livestock. They are still largely nomadic. They have certain places in the valleys they return to in winter. But they don’t have concrete houses or cabins. They live most of the year in felt tents, following their herds. And of course this is common land, so there are no fences.
We are at an early stage. We are still creating a management plan with the participation of local communities. But we have been giving training to local herders in how to monitor the park and make patrols. It is a big commitment for them. They need lots of support. It won’t happen overnight, but we are working to build their capacity. We hope that in the long run the reserve will be managed by the community.
e360: Are you confident the reserve will last?
Agvaantseren: Yes. Right now there is no mining going on. It would be illegal. But there is mining in the surrounding areas, and we have challenges from illegal mining. So we have to be vigilant.
“We have to maintain the habitat for the leopards and their prey in the face of climate change. The climate is already harsher.”
There are other pressing issues. We have to maintain the habitat for the leopards and their prey in the face of climate change. The climate is already harsher. There is more snow in winter, and the summer droughts are getting worse. Local people talk about climate change. They see that grass for their livestock is disappearing. Lots of animals die. Because the land isn’t producing much grass, the herds have to move around more frequently. And that degrades the land more.
Another concern is that they are raising more goats, because of the growth of the cashmere industry. It is profitable. So while the pastures are deteriorating the herders are keeping more animals. We try to encourage them to reduce their livestock numbers. To go for quality rather than quantity. But this is an ongoing problem.
e360: So what future do you see for the region?
Agvaantseren: I am hopeful… Most countries are now increasingly urban. But while Ulaanbaatar is big and heavily polluted, half the Mongolian population still lives in the countryside, and most of them are in herding communities. But we have to keep space for the snow leopards, especially in places like South Gobi. And if they are not to be taken over by mines in the long run, these places will have to support the economy in other ways. Herding will continue to be a part of it, I am sure. But I think we can have a well-managed tourist program — based on snow leopards and run by local communities. People will come in the hope of seeing the mountain ghosts. And I do hope that one day I will see one too.