Snow leopard surprise in eastern Mongolia [2023]

GoogleMap of Ikh Nart Reserve in MongoliaThe recent discovery of a snow leopard in Mongolia’s Ikh Nart Nature Reserve—more than 250 km (155 miles) from the nearest known population—is one of the easternmost observations of the species and has big implications for understanding the species and improving conservation planning. Although Ikh Nart is in a region assessed to be a low-quality habitat for the snow leopard and highly resistant to the species’s movement, the Reserve itself has high densities of argali sheep and Siberian ibexes, important prey animals for the snow leopard.

After herders reported sighting a snow leopard in Ikh Nart in December 2021, scientists installed camera traps in the vicinity, first capturing the big cat on camera in January 2022. Data from the camera traps, combined with tracks and scat, indicated the presence of the snow leopard in the area for at least another seven months after the initial camera recording.

What it means

Ikh Nart is an improbable place to find snow leopards, given the surrounding low-quality habitat and distance from the species’ current range. The presence of the species—even short-term—in the reserve offers an important window into understanding the role of remote protected areas as “stepping stones” for facilitating snow leopard population expansion and broader connectivity to other potentially suitable, but unoccupied areas. Identifying these stepping stones is critical to snow leopard conservation.

Here are some key takeaways from this one cat’s curiosity.

Ability of the snow leopard to move across low-quality environments

The presence of this cat in Ikh Nart Nature Reserve is astonishing for two reasons. First, the reserve is an “island of habitat” surrounded by habitat not suitable for these big cats. Secondly, the reserve is situated within a region highly resistant to this big cat’s movement – i.e., factors such as old mines, snow cover, and human activities impede the species’ ability to move freely from place to place. In this case, the snow leopard presumably traveled hundreds of kilometers through that unwelcoming landscape to reach Ikh Nart, a much greater distance than usual for moving across low-quality regions.

Value of investing in community conservation and collaborative park management

When established in 1996, Ikh Nart was no more than a “paper park” with few resources to address threats in the area, to include wildlife poaching, overgrazing, and competition between livestock and wildlife. In the early 2000s, a conservation initiative began to transform Ikh Nart into a well-managed protected area that could serve as a model for other nature reserves and parks in Mongolia and elsewhere. Efforts initially focused on working with local communities to restore populations of argali sheep and ibex, almost entirely ending poaching of both species. The arrival and persistence of this cat in Ikh Nart is probably due to the restoration and protection of these prey populations, at least in part.Snow leopard ascends a steep rocky slope

Participants in this work included a broad coalition of conservation organizations, zoos, researchers, universities, and government agencies from both within Mongolia and the United States. Our congratulations go out to everyone involved for years of community engagement, careful study, planning, and trust in the process.

Learn about our snow leopard conservation work in Altai.