In the Field: Exploring Mongolia with Snow Leopard Champion Bayarjargal Agvaantseren

October 8, 2019

This is a guest blog by Program Officer Lindsey Freedman, who shares series of photos from her visit to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, to meet 2019 Prize winner Bayarjargal Agvaantseren. Agvaantseren helped create the 1.8 million-acre Tost Tosonbumba Nature Reserve in the South Gobi Desert—a critical habitat for the vulnerable snow leopard—then succeeded in persuading the Mongolian government to cancel all mining licenses within the reserve.

As a native Californian, my idea of cold is anything below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. So, when I stepped off the plane on a cold January night in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, I had to check to make sure my eyeballs hadn’t frozen in their sockets. It was minus 34 degrees. It felt like I was inhaling icy daggers instead of oxygen. I’d been obsessively checking the weather before I left on my trip to meet 2019 Prize winner Bayara Agvaantseren, but had ultimately given up trying to anticipate temperature swings and just packed all of my warm gear. All of it. Which meant that I ended up looking like the Michelin man and abandoned any dreams of making it into the pages of fashion magazines.

snow leopard mural

Bayara and the snow leopard mural outside of the SLCF offices

Despite the cold, being able to finally meet Bayara and spend time with this amazing activist was one of the highlights of my career. I knew from my research that her steely determination had earned her the nickname “The Iron Lady.” Soft-spoken and polite, at first I didn’t quite understand where the nickname had come from. But after visiting the Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation’s office and listening to Bayara explain, in incredible detail, their work and the grave threats that Mongolia’s snow leopards are facing, it became immediately clear to me how she earned such a powerful moniker. I was lucky enough to see camera trap footage of snow leopards and was impressed by how the staff of SLCF could identify individual cats based on their spots (they all looked pretty similar to me!). I also learned that a large mural of a snow leopard painted on the wall outside of the office was not commissioned by Bayara, but instead had just…appeared one day.

Getting to the 1.8 million-acre Tost Tosonbumba Nature Reserve—which Bayara created specifically for snow leopards—in the South Gobi Desert is an arduous, several-day journey by car that unfortunately was impossible to make, due both to weather and time constraints. However, Bayara was an excellent host while I was in Ulaanbaatar, and we had a great time visiting the Genghis Khan museum on the outskirts of the capital. We also rode Bactrian camels, which were surprisingly smooth and not unlike riding atop a big, hairy sofa.

Mongolia is an immense country replete with natural resources, but those same resources are the primary drivers of devastating environmental degradation that directly threatens the snow leopard and its habitat. Bayara’s work to protect the world’s second largest population of snow leopards from extinction is all the more impressive given the challenges she’s facing. It was an honor to spend time with Bayara, and I will definitely return to Mongolia to help SLCF staff set camera traps in the mountains—but, next time, I’m going in the spring.

Getting up-close and personal with Mongolian wildlife

Riding Bactrian camels with Bayara

Visiting the Genghis Khan museum