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Bayarjargal Agvaantseren

The snow leopard's saviour

Snow leopards make their home in remote mountain ranges and are found at altitudes of 10,000 feet or more above sea level. A single individual’s territory can reach up to 200 square miles in size. Bayarjargal Agvaantseren has never seen one of these elusive big cats in the wild, a fact which makes her heroic efforts to save the species all the more remarkable. Before founding the Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation in 2007, Bayara worked for many years as a translator for snow leopard researchers in Mongolia, collaborating also with the country’s nomadic herding communities on conservation projects and community initiatives. In 2009 she learned that a huge area of important snow leopard habitat in the Tost Mountains had been licensed for prospecting, and it was then that her conservation battle truly began.

Over the ensuing years, Bayara would have to take on the mining industry, lobby government officials, work with the media on a mass public outreach campaign, and convince Mongolia’s herders that protecting the snow leopard could benefit them. Following years of tireless advocacy, Bayara’s work finally paid off in 2016, when the Mongolian Government established the 1.8-million-acre Tost Tosonbumba Nature Reserve – the first federally protected area in Mongolia created specifically for snow leopard conservation. Numerous active mining licenses remained, however, and Bayara continued to pressure the authorities for a further two years until the reserve was finally fully protected. Mining operations here are now completely outlawed. The reserve protects a core breeding population of snow leopards and forms part of a contiguous protected area of habitat that stretches for more than 20 million acres across the South Gobi.

For her colossal contribution to snow leopard conservation in Mongolia, Bayara was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2019. Though Tost Tosonbumba has been enshrined as a vital protected area for the snow leopard and many other species, Bayara’s work isn’t done. The big cats are still threatened by poachers, habitat loss, and herders who engage in retaliatory killings of snow leopards in response to livestock predation. The Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation aims to prevent this latter threat by providing livestock insurance for herders. The Foundation also supports research initiatives and manages Tost Tosonbumba in collaboration with local communities, training herds in how to patrol and monitor the reserve. Bayara also serves as the Mongolia director for the International Snow Leopard Trust.

Nwh Bayarjargal Agvaantseren Goldman Environmental Prize

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What is it about the snow leopard that inspired you to devote yourself to its protection?

Snow leopards are a magnificent species. They are elusive and mysterious. I think they are one of the beautiful gifts that Mother Earth has given to us, to humans, to make our lives meaningful. Unfortunately, today, many species including the snow leopard are fighting to survive in their habitat because of our negative environmental influences. I wanted to do something that helps both us and this beautiful cat. This is the reason I dedicated my career to snow leopard conservation.

What is the state of conservation in Mongolia? Are animals like the snow leopard a source of pride for the Mongolian people?

Mongolia has a long history of conservation, dating back to the 1800s. Mount Bogd Khan Uul was declared a protected site in 1783, making it the first protected area, as we know them today, in the world. Currently the country has good laws, giving more rights and responsibilities to local government and people. Unfortunately there are shortcomings with enforcement, while political powers sometimes disregard the laws.

Yes, there are animals like the wolf and saker falcon that are a source of pride. In terms of the snow leopard, it is considered to be a mysterious power – a ghost of the mountains. Conservation awareness of snow leopards nationwide has spread due to many years of campaigning to turn Tost Mountain into a State Protected Area, as one of the globally important habitats of snow leopards.

In order to establish Tost Tosonbumba, you had to find a way to work with such diverse groups as government officials, rural herding communities and the media. How did you manage to convince everyone of the benefits of the reserve?

It was of course a challenging road for me and my team. We encountered a number of setbacks from decision-makers, and it required so much time and resources. A long-term collaboration with rural herding communities was key for this campaign and the media played an important role by allowing the voices of these communities to be heard. Working with the media to draw attention to these various groups was a key move to success.

Two female members of parliament were instrumental in helping you to achieve your goal. Do you hope that the formation of the reserve will help to inspire women in Mongolia, from conservationists to politicians to those living in rural communities?

Finding like-minded politicians to support us took a lot of time. At the beginning our approach was to reach out to parliamentarians who were elected from the region, who were mostly men. It was obvious that they were reluctant to be supportive because they are more involved in mining businesses. Finally, women began saying yes to conservation at every level of decision-making. The local governor, a woman, was on board with us, then former parliament members Oyungerel Tsedevdamba and Erdenechimeg Luvsan took the case up to be discussed and declared by the Mongolian Parliament. Our country needs to have more women like Oyungerel and Erdenechimeg making decisions at every level of society. Definitely, women’s involvement in making Tost a State Protected Area inspired a lot of women in Mongolia.

The prospect of high-paying jobs in the mining industry can lead herders away from their traditional way of life. What economic incentives can be provided to herders so that they do not choose a career that threatens the natural world?

I noticed that when mining started in the area, local people were drawn to it, seeing it as an economic opportunity. They left their herds to gain employment with different mining companies. However, not long after, they realised they didn’t have the skills and knowledge to work in the mining sector, and also began to see that it damages their pastureland that they have lived by for generations. Mining did not contribute much to local livelihoods. I think there are ways to offer economic incentives while allowing people to keep their traditional livelihoods, such as eco and cultural tourism, efficient livestock husbandry, etc.

Herders in Mongolia sometimes engage in retaliatory killings of snow leopards in response to livestock predation. How can these herders be encouraged to live more harmoniously with snow leopards when the big cats threaten their livelihood?

This has been one of the continuing threats to snow leopards. My lifetime of work with rural herders shows that encouraging them to participate in conservation is key to saving snow leopards. We help them to own the program so it can be driven by them. I have worked with them to create a number of programs to help both local herders and snow leopards. Our Snow Leopard Enterprises program offers income-generating opportunities, producing local handicrafts, with incentives if snow leopards are protected. This has been successful and encourages the communities’ participation in conservation. The livestock insurance scheme, developed with the herders, compensates their economic losses from snow leopard predation. The idea of these programs is to help people find ways to coexist with snow leopards instead of seeing them as enemies. When they engage in these programs, their attitude to snow leopards changes. Eventually, they start to see the importance of saving wildlife in their area.

The Tost Tosonbumba Nature Reserve connects with two other protected areas, providing a combined 20 million acres of contiguous snow leopard habitat. How important is it for these protected areas to be connected?

Snow leopards are a landscape species, so it is important to have large landscapes like the South Gobi, which includes Tost Nature Reserve. This landscape holds a high density of rare and endangered snow leopards and their prey species. The connectivity of these protected areas provides an important corridor, not only to snow leopards but to many other species too. The protected area system and landscape alone isn’t enough to protect snow leopards – we need to expand community-based conservation programs and research.

Prior to dedicating yourself to snow leopard conservation, you worked as a language teacher, translator and tour guide. What role do you think tourism can play in ensuring the survival of snow leopards? Is Mongolia in particular receptive to the advantages offered by wildlife tourism?

Wildlife like the snow leopard is a natural heritage that is an equally important resource as copper, coal and gold. Conservation of the species has the potential to attract tourism. Protected areas like Tost Nature Reserve have a lot of potential to bring an economical benefit to the country if there is a policy and intention to develop tourism. Visiting the land of snow leopards can be one of the tourist products that attract visitors, along with offering unique cultural and natural heritage tours of Mongolia to the world. Wildlife tourism is a developing business and I think there is a potential to grow this in Mongolia if done properly. But again we need better policies to develop not only wildlife tourism but tourism in general.

Snow leopards can only thrive as part of a wider ecosystem. What other flora and fauna have been protected with the formation of Tost Tosonbumba?

The reserve covers areas from high mountain to steppe desert, from low mountain ranges to semi-desert landscapes with oases and sand dunes. This ecosystem supports more than 50 mammal species including snow leopard, ibex, argali, wild ass and gazelle, with eight species listed on the Mongolian Red List (the most threatened mammals in Mongolia). Within this rich mountain environment there are 250 - 350 vascular plant species, 70% of which are registered as endangered species. Over 10 species of reptile are found here and more than 60 bird species have been recorded. With further research the number of species we find will likely increase. Protecting all of this as a whole will ensure a viable snow leopard population.

You currently work for both the Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation in Mongolia and the US-based Snow Leopard Trust. In your experience, how do the roles of local conservation organisations differ from international ones?

Of course there are advantages and challenges for local conservation organisations, yet their roles in conservation are important. They influence local decision-making, facilitate multiple partners to make conservation efficient, collaborate with local people, alert any conservation issues to the broader public and decision-makers, etc. For developing countries like Mongolia, conservation is still challenged with limited resources and capacity. There is always a need to build capacity of local organisations. For this, collaboration with international organisations is vital and makes conservation more efficient and impactful. The mutual partnership of local and international organisations like Snow Leopard Trust (SLT) and Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation is important for conservation. For example, protecting Tost would not have been possible without the help of SLT and its supporters. The SLT science team provided crucial scientific research and information to prove the importance of Tost as a snow leopard habitat, while their communications team helped underline the international importance of the issue. This certainly helped influence decision-makers in our favour.

Who is your own personal Natural World Hero and why?

My Natural World Heroes are the local people who were empowered and who were able to fight for their rights to have their homeland and wildlife habitat protected. Once they may have thought they had no power in the face of mining and other threats, but they soon realised that they and no-one else are the ones who need to defend their home and their land. I admire those who don’t give up.

What natural world insight would you like to leave us with?

We must work daily to ensure the world and our children are safe.