For many years now a personal obsession of mine has been to see a Snow Leopard and my first attempt to see this animal commenced last year. During late July into early August 2019, I spent two weeks in Mongolia with Wise Birding Holidays. Our first week was spent entirely in the south Gobi Altai Mountains, searching for the Ghost Cat. The second week was spent looking for a wide range of Mongolia’s other mammals and birds.
Unfortunately and despite our best efforts of seven days constantly scanning vast areas of mountain wilderness, I failed to see one of these magnificent animals. Chris Townend, of Wise Birding, ran a second trip later in August 2019, following on from the trip that I attended and he was successful in seeing the Snow Leopard. So the Ghost Cat was there, I was just unlucky on this occasion.
The elegant and well-camouflaged Snow Leopard is one of the world’s most elusive cats. It is often called the “Ghost Cat”, living up to its name. It is thinly spread across twelve countries in central Asia and is at home in high, rugged and often inaccessible, mountain landscapes. Human wildlife conflict, habitat deterioration, habitat loss, poaching and climate change are now threatening the animals survival. As the Snow Leopard lives in such harsh and remote environments, very little is known about them.
My second attempt for Snow Leopard commenced at the beginning of March 2020. I planned the trip with Purevsuren Tsolmonjav (Pugi for short) of Birding Mongolia. He convinced me that he had the knowledge and expertise to show me Snow Leopard, so the trip was put together. However, at the time of my departure, 29th February 2020, little did I know as to what was about to unfold during the course of my expedition.
I left the UK reasonably safe in the knowledge that Mongolia was free of Corona virus. There were no restrictions placed on Mongolia and more importantly, no cases of the virus and as I was only going to be away for two weeks, it felt a safe bet and worth undertaking the risk.
I arrived in Ulaanbaatar on 2nd March and was met at the airport by Pugi. We transferred to my hotel, the Ibis Styles, where I would have to stay for the next 24 hours due to a government shut down of domestic transport. This was their way of controlling Corona virus and the movement of people within the country.
The ban was lifted on 3rd March, which caused us to change our plans somewhat. The earliest we could fly to the western Altai was now 5th March, so we decide to spend 3rd & 4th March looking for Pallas’s Cat in the Tov area, a few hours drive out of Ulaanbaatar.
We spent two nights with a remote nomadic family, sharing one of their Ger Tents. With limited facilities, it was not for the faint hearted and was made even more difficult by the extreme temperature of -26 centigrade.
On arrival at the camp we set off in search of our target cat. Eventually I managed to find my own Pallas’s Cat. It was distant but gave good views as it sat on a high rock surveying its territory before heading off to its den.
We discovered two separate dens but unfortunately no photographic opportunities during our limited time in this area. We also saw at least eight Corsac Fox, three Red Fox and a Mountain Hare.
A few good birds were discovered in the general area, despite the freezing temperatures, these included a small covey of Daurian Partridge, large numbers of Horned Lark and Tree Sparrow, smaller numbers of Mongolian Lark, a single Small Snow Finch in the lark flock, several Upland Buzzard, Golden Eagle, Saker and Cinereous Vulture. Red-billed Chough, Raven, Magpie and several Asian Short-toed Lark were also seen.
We left the TOV area on 5th March and made our way back to UB in order to catch our domestic flight to Ulaangom, located in Uvs province in the far west of Mongolia, arriving at the Snow Leopard Camp on 6th March.
The drive from Ulaangom took 6 hours and so we were miles away from civilisation, being based in a very remote high mountain river valley. I was prepared for the remoteness of the area, where we would be staying for the next 4-5 days, but nothing could prepare me for the events that unfolded from the 9th onwards.
The whole area was a protected zone and my guide had to obtain permits through the local authority in order to stay and travel through the national park.
We spent the 6th 7th and 8th March searching various areas for Snow Leopard, looking for signs of kills and tracking several animals with no success. We saw a single Wild Boar and a selection of birds that included, several Bearded Vulture, Golden Eagle, Dipper, Red-billed and Alpine Chough, Brown Accentor, Godlewski’s Bunting, Meadow Bunting, Mealy Redpoll, Arctic Redpoll and Long-tailed Rosefinch.
Then on the 9th March we struck lucky and discovered a male Snow Leopard. We were fortunate enough to be able to watch the animal for a number of hours and I managed take some incredible photographs of this sort after cat. My quest was over.
We decided to vacate the Ger camp on the morning of the 10th March. As we left the mountain valley behind us and entered a wide-open mountain plateau, the mobile phones kicked into gear and went ballistic.
Suddenly life as I new it came to an abrupt end. Unknowingly on my arrival into Mongolia I had been sat within 2 seats of a French mining engineer who turned-out to be Mongolia’s first case of Corona virus. He wasn’t diagnosed until the 9th March and then the authorities were trying to track down all passengers off the flight. As we had been out of communications, I was the last person they needed to contact.
From hereon in, the trip ended and our group of four people were effectively imprisoned at the remote Ger Camp, under Corona virus quarantine controls and I remained at the camp for the next two weeks. We had daily medical checks by an onsite medical team who were amazing people.
Because the camp had such basic facilities, there was no electricity, no communications and no running water. It turned out to be a real nightmare experience for all of us.
Our cook was amazing throughout the ordeal. How she managed to produce meals to such an extremely high standard and in very difficult circumstances was amazing and beyond me. From baking bread to creating a whole range of hot soups, we were well catered for.
Anyhow, trying to cut a long story short, the two medicals we undertook proved negative and we were eventually released from the camp on 18th March. I arrived back in UB on 19th March where I effectively stayed in the Ibis Styles Hotel for the rest of my duration in Mongolia. I cannot thank the staff at the hotel enough for their kindness and courtesy during my stay. At this time I really had no idea when I would get back home. The British Embassy mentioned the end of April, even into May.
Pugi, my amazing guide, took me out a couple of times and we were able to do some local birding under difficult circumstances. I simply found everything so overwhelming and wasn’t really able to concentrate due to the mental and emotional stresses I was experiencing.
Anyway we did see some smart birds in the local areas just outside the city.
My luck changed on the 31st March, when I was advised by the British Embassy that I would be flying out on a government charter to Tokyo. This all happened very quickly and on the 2nd April I found myself boarding the aircraft and then spending the next forty or so hours, travelling none stop back home.
My lowest moment was thinking I was going to die and that I would never see my wife again. That took some getting over. My highest moment was on the 8th of March, a day before all this shit kicked off, when I looked right into the eye of a Snow Leopard, the Ghost Cat of the Mongolian mountains and a moment in my life I will never forget.
My thanks go to Purevsuren Tsolmonjav of Birding Mongolia, for putting the trip together and for looking after me like a brother throughout my ordeal. I have made a friend for life and if you want to see the wildlife of Mongolia, which is a fabulous country then Pugi is your man.
I can’t explain in words how truly wonderful it was to get back home, give my lovely wife a big hug and begin to settle back down into some kind of normal life. But then what is normal at this un-nerving time of self- isolating and social distancing due to COVID19.
The Corona virus is real and it’s scary. Please adhere to the government’s advice and warnings and don’t be risky and selfish to others. We all need to get through this and come out the other-side, so we can back to enjoying the world’s wildlife again.