Teacher, organizer, leader
Born to a village teacher in northern Mongolia, Bayarjargal Agvaantseren, 49, started her career as a Russian and English language teacher and tour guide. While interpreting for a visiting scientist who came to Mongolia in the 1980s to study the snow leopard, she became fascinated with the cats, and decided to devote her life to its protection. Before founding the Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation in 2007, she worked for many years with Mongolia’s far-flung herder communities on conservation projects and community initiatives. The foundation provides livestock insurance for herders, supports research initiatives, and has a conservation handicraft program run by women. Agvaantseren is also the Mongolia director for the International Snow Leopard Trust. She lives in Ulaanbaatar and makes the two-day, off-road drive to Tost about three times per month.
Persistence in the face of obstacles
In 2009, Agvaantseren learned about extensive mining operations in the Tost Mountains—an area that bridges two existing national parks in the South Gobi, serving as a key migration corridor and critical habitat for snow leopards. Agvaantseren had earned the trust of the Tost community through her years of working in the province and, acting as an envoy for the community, met with government officials to advocate that Tost become a federally protected area.
To garner support for creating the Tost Tosonbumba Nature Reserve, Agvaantseren collaborated with environmental journalists in Ulaanbaatar on a mass public outreach campaign that included publishing daily news articles, social media events, and interviews with key lawmakers. In April 2016, her advocacy resulted in the formal designation of the 1.8 million-acre Tost Tosonbumba Nature Reserve—the first federally protected area in Mongolia created specifically for snow leopard conservation. The reserve protects a core breeding population of snow leopards and forms a combined area of over 20 million acres of contiguous protected snow leopard habitat in the South Gobi.
Although the designation was a major victory, numerous active mining licenses within the reserve had been grandfathered in. Agvaantseren continued to pressure government authorities to nullify the remaining licenses to comply with the law. By June 2018, all 37 active mining licenses with the reserve had been canceled.
Agvaantseren’s persistent advocacy, community engagement, and collaboration with government officials led to the major victory, in April 2016, of the designation of the Tost Tosonbumba Nature Reserve, which ultimately canceled all active mining licenses within the reserve’s boundaries.
In a remote, unforgiving corner of the world dominated by runaway mining operations, Agvaantseren championed protections for Mongolia’s remaining population of snow leopards. Moreover, she was able to shift perceptions of snow leopards among herder communities, who now see the animal as an integral part of their identity.