© Mongolia Quest / Theo Allofs

In Search of the Elusive Snow Leopard: Expedition in Western Mongolia

12 April 2024

Embarking on a scouting trip in February to glimpse the endangered snow leopard (Panthera uncia) in the rugged mountains of Western Mongolia was an adventure like no other. With population estimates ranging from 3,920 to 6,390 worldwide, including approximately 953 in Mongolia (Report by World Wildlife Fund, 2021), the mission was both thrilling and daunting. 

The journey proved physically demanding with extensive hiking and harsh weather conditions, including nighttime temperatures dropping to -30 degrees Celsius. Spotting these camouflaged cats requires rigorous hiking, particularly during their most active periods at dawn and dusk. Nevertheless, it was one of the most adventurous and untamed experiences we have ever had at Mongolia Quest, unique to the breathtaking landscapes of Mongolia. 

Western Mongolia, particularly the Altai Mountains, provides an ideal habitat for snow leopards, thriving in the cold, barren expanses of high altitude. With an average elevation ranging from 6,562 to 9,843 feet, the Altai Mountain range offers ample territory for these solitary creatures with home ranges spanning up to 386 square kilometers

 © Mongolia Quest / Theo Allofs

Our team comprised a biologist as the team leader and trackers, who are local herders/rangers familiar with the region. Given the snow leopard's shared habitat with domestic livestock, these herders possess invaluable knowledge essential to our tracking efforts. Our daily routine involved checking for fresh footprints, signs of prey, and "bumbaa," the markings of their territory or signaling mates. We ventured to potential locations, often high on mountain ridges and cliffs, equipped with walkie-talkies, binoculars, telescopes, and packed lunches. Despite the snow leopard's elusive nature, sightings of new footprints, noises, and "bumbaa" markings filled us with hope and anticipation. 

Even though the snow leopard is non-aggressive towards humans, I always ensured to accompany our biologist or local herders during tracking expeditions. Some days, we observed herds of ibex, argali, and various livestock species, which are the primary prey of snow leopards. 

One local herder, Enkhbat, shared his perspective on coexisting with snow leopards,  acknowledging the losses incurred to his livestock while recognizing the importance of preserving these majestic creatures for cultural and ecological reasons. 

During our six-day endeavor, we were fortunate to encounter fresh footprints, "bumbaa"  markings, and even hear the distant calls of snow leopards. Our biologist informed us that  February marks the mating season for these elusive cats, increasing our chances of sightings.  However, it wasn't until the sixth day that one of our trackers spotted a snow leopard from a distant mountain peak during dawn. The excitement reverberated through our camp as we hastily approached the cliff where the cat lay concealed.

Executing a meticulously planned strategy, our team coordinated efforts to observe and photograph the elusive feline. Despite our best efforts, the snow leopard remained elusive,  eventually retreating into the wilderness. 

A well-camouflaged snow leopard. ©Mongolia Quest / Jami Tarris

Reflections on the Expedition and Conservation Initiatives 

Mongolia's vast and sparsely populated landscapes provide an unparalleled opportunity for encountering true wild wildlife. Unlike more frequented destinations, wildlife observation in  Mongolia demands a spirit of adventure, physical resilience, and local expertise. 

At Mongolia Quest, conservation efforts are imperative to safeguarding snow leopards from threats such as poaching and habitat degradation. By supporting community cooperatives, funding conservation projects, investing in research, and implementing effective management policies, we can contribute to the preservation of these magnificent creatures. 

Moreover, technological advancements in habitat mapping offer insights into the behavior and movement patterns of snow leopards, aiding conservation efforts and enhancing our understanding of these enigmatic predators. With each expedition, we gain a deeper appreciation for the natural world and the need to protect it for future generations.

About Mongolia Quest

With more than 30 years of experience, Mongolia Quest is dedicated to fostering friendship,
conserving cultural and natural heritage, and promoting sustainable growth through tourism in
Mongolia and East Asia. We offer a range of active adventure tours, from wildlife safaris to
paleontological expeditions, designed to inspire citizen-scientists, adventurers, and nature
enthusiasts alike.

At Mongolia Quest, we are deeply committed to supporting local communities, National
Parks, wildlife conservation efforts, and educational initiatives. To learn more about our mission
and offerings, visit our website.

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