A few weeks ago, Starling reizen organised its first trip dedicated to seeing both Pallas’s cat, Saiga antelope and Snow Leopard in the wild. More specifically, the wild Mongolian steppes and Altai mountain ranges. Safe to say we -consisting of Billy, Rik, Sam, Iwan, PJ and myself- were very eager to join this maiden trip. Even if we did not know what to expect, except for a dry and chilly landscape and a lot of sheep meat on our plate.
Mongolia…really is a very quirky country:
It is one of the oldest countries on the planet, being established around 209 BC.
Three million people inhabit the 604.000 square miles, half of those inhabiting the capital Ulaanbaatar, making it the most sparsely populated country in the world.
The average elevation is 1580m, sunny days are observed around 257 days a year, and the average year round temperature measured in Ulaanbaatar is -1°C, making it the coldest capital in the world.
Our trip started with many hours of flights, before landing in Ulaanbaatar:
Cold but Gold, the vast city of Ulaanbaatar is a sight to behold.
I guess people were not expecting the city to grow that big when the coal power plant was placed.
Originally known as Orgöo, Ulaanbaatar historically moved no less than 25 times before finally settling at its current riverside location. What else would you expect when your population consists of nomadic herders, right.
Mongolia is most known for Genghis Khan and the Mongol empire he founded in 1206. Having reunited all of the tribes and motivating them to work and fight together, the Mongol empire was the largest empire that ever existed. Safe to say in Mongolia, Genghis is considered the true OG.
People visiting the Genghis Khan statue outside Ulaanbaatar.
Enough with the human stuff. Time for nature
In Ulaanbaatar, you are greeted by Azure tits. High on the wish list and a lifer for all tour participants.
Time to hit the road.
In the first week, we drove around 700km to a remote steppe area in the Southwest of the country and a hotspot for Pallas’s cat.
The wide open Mongolian steppe landscape, littered with cattle belonging to nomadic herders.
About 25% of Mongolians still live a traditional nomadic life, but life is changing fast and about 68000 herders a year have moved to Ulaanbaatar since 2001, setting up informal tent camps in the capital, but lacking facilities like water and power. The population of Ulaanbaatar has almost doubled in the last 10 years to 1.5 million people, with about 55 percent of the city’s population still living in ger tents.
A remarkable fact is that under the Soviet union, the country (four times the size of Germany) was not allowed to surpass 20 million livestock animals, whilst currently it is estimated that 70 million animals graze the steppes, causing depletion in some areas.
More animals means more animals at risk: Severe winters that kill large numbers of livestock are common enough in Mongolia that there is a term for the phenomenon: dzud. Dzud has been occurring more frequently in recent years, and it seems to be getting worse. Every decade has one or two winters with significant losses (up to 30% of all cattle dying!) but in previous years they have been occurring more frequent and more harsh. The winter of 2010 had temperatures dropping to -59°C, ending in massive death of livestock. The enticement of a better city life, combined with the harsh conditions in winter, made so many people switch their life around and move to the concrete jungle. Impressive to see this transition taking place.
Herd of cattle making its way through the infinite landscape
Bogii vs Oogii… Whenever there is free time, Mongols pick a fight. Easy as that.
And now… Pallas’s cat
These rarely seen felids inhabit the vast steppe landscape and are notoriously shy, so the way one goes around to see this species is by scanning from distance. Once you have found a cat, you can approach it. The animals rarely have a shelter (such as a marmot hole or rocky burrow) to run to and simply crouch down.
Early morning chilly scan session
PJ got respect from the locals, yet they didn’t know his hat was made from a roadkill fox #ecofur
Daytime was spent birdwatching and in photo hides to get close shots.
PJ being a happy camper whilst waiting for Mongolian larks to come and drink.
Mongolian gerbil liked being in the shot.
“Tony Tony, Listen. Why do squirrels swim on their back?”
“Don’t know George”
“To keep their nuts from getting wet”
Migratory red flanked bluetail had left Siberia and was now on its way south. Strange to see a boreal taiga species in the steppe landscape.
Steppe eagle at dawn
Not only living animals but also dead animals are seen everywhere in Mongolia. In tough winters, easily 20% of sheep, goats, horses, yaks and camels can die. A result is that many of these carcasses are eaten only by flies and small critters. The flat planes are not ideal for vultures since there is no place to rest, so no large groups of scavengers are present in many areas.
What remains of the dead animal is remarkably intact:
Because there is so much dust in the air, both sunrises and sunsets are bound to be impressive. Billy and PJ loved putting their skills to work and get the shot as good as they could.
I was never that much into it, but gave it a try. In the end it were the other images with human interaction in this moment that I liked most.
It is said no woman can get between a man and his tripod
More looking for Pallas’s cat
After a few days we got lucky… Billy, -probably due to the fact he had a double vision Swarovski telescope and not because of superior spotting skills- found a Pallas’s cat foraging in the steppe and the biologist that joined us was eager to get to the cat ASAP. He said that most likely it would be laying down in the grass, relying on its camouflage. It was a matter of getting there and finding it.
We jumped in the car, drove to the spot and got out. Complete silence around us. No wind, no bird songs, nothing. A very strange atmosphere.
All of a sudden I was yelled at by Oogii: “Don’t move, it’s right in front of you”. I did not move a meter but still could not see it. Felt like a dummy and it was only when the guide came to me and pointed it out, that I saw the cat laying in the grass, some 8m in front of me.
Pallas’s cat crouched down and not moving a muscle.
The best thing one can do next is place hides and make sure no more people are in sight of the cat. After some time the animal will very slowly get up and sneak away.
So that’s what we did.
First it opened its eyes
And then indeed, it very very slowly sneaked away. In a way I have never ever seen any animal behave. Complete slow motion, yet in plane sight. SO EPIC!!!
Stuff off dreams to see such a rare animal in such a way
With this great sighting it was time to leave the steppes behind and head for the Altai mountains.
We took a plane and flew 2.5 hours west, being reminded that Mongolia is a big country indeed.
Our guide had arranged drivers, Land Cruisers and four ger tents for us to spend the following week in. A true expedition because hardly anyone inhabits this place.
Insane -unphotoshopped- scenery at dusk. The dust in the air makes for very special lighting.
In these Altai regions, steppe habitat is found at the bottom of the mountains, and it harbours the last populations of Saiga Antelope in Mongolia. We spent some days scanning for snow leopards in the higher parts of the mountains, and others for Saiga in the steppe areas.
Locals were wondered by the DJI Mavics that PJ and Billy brought. Looks good for the aftermovie PJ is planning to make.
The rough life. Herders spend winter with their family in a lonesome ger high up in the mountains,
trying to provide an income for their families as well as food for their cattle.
We gained a lot of respect for these people, who give it all they’ve got, every single day.
Rik and Sam on scanning duty, two brothers that travel together in their quest to see pristine nature and wildlife.
Early morning shades in base camp
Our guides had arranged two herders to spend a week with us and ride their horses up the mountains every day, in order to look for fresh snow leopard activity.
If they were to find fresh tracks, or even a kill, we would know a more specific area to focus on.
Crazy evening vibes
Tree sparrow very common everywhere
Weasel prints on a river bank
We spent quite some time looking for Saiga antelope. It is a species that few people are interested in, but I have always dreamt about seeing them. With their nose trunks, their insane running speeds (exceeding 100 km/h) and their ability to survive in the coldest and driest of steppe habitat.
Saiga artist impression by (c) Meser creations.
The nose is flexible and inflatable so helps the animal to breathe clean air during dusty summers and warm air during cold winters.
Populations of the critically endangered Mongolian Saiga antelope have plummeted by 40 percent following large die-offs due to harsh winters and viral infections (such as Peste des Petits Ruminants (PPR), also known as ovine rinderpest or goat plague). It is now estimated that only 3000 Saiga remain in Mongolia. The Saiga population has suffered a roller coaster ride since 2001 when the numbers dropped to only 750 animals following a summer drought and a heavy winter. However, thanks to continuous conservation efforts, the population increased to 14000 and its range increased by 13 percent in 2014. But then an outbreak of goat plague reduced the numbers to 5000 in 2017. Poaching has also reduced the Saiga population.
Because these animals are so shy and we did not want to chase them through the steppes, we settled on portraying the enigmatic Saiga in its steppe habitat:
Saiga in the steppe
PJ -aka the bone collector- went out to find some Mongolian Ibex trophies and will spend the following year filling in Mongolian paperwork to get these bad boys to his living room.
On our quest for the snow leopard, we found more prey remains…
Where there are healthy numbers of snow leopards, bones pile up.
Our drivers knew these mountains very well and were keen to show us the good stuff.
Can you image the feeling when grandpa camouflage here looks through his magnifying glass and points you out were the ibex are sitting, and you hadn’t seen them with your swaro telescope?
Indeed, it goes like Kendrick said: Bitch be humble.
Wherever there are bones, you see Lammergeiers…
The first days passed and no leopard yet. But tracks were everywhere and the weather was good. So we were hopeful. And Billy kept teasing us that he would find the leopard before we could, thanks to his brand new thermal imaging camera.
Another sunset after a solid day of scanning the slopes with the entire group. No cat.
The following day we were up early again and climbed the mountain to a clear vantage point where we could scan. After a few hours Billy -still probably due to the fact he had a double vision Swarovski telescope and not because of superior spotting skills?- said super calmly “looks like there is a dead animal lying there, left of the big rock”
This is the view I more or less had in my scope.
Yup, looks like an animal laying there in a rather unnatural position.
He continued still calmly as ever “That must be a fresh leopard kill no?
I said “I don’t know man, I can barely say what that is”.
Then his decibels cranked up to 11 and he yelled “there is a fucking snow leopard laying left to the big rock”
This image was taken from around 2-3km distance, and if it wouldn’t have been for the dead yak, the leopard (left of the rock) would have remained unseen, for sure.
This is where things became really really interesting. And this moment changed the agenda for the following days completely.
Oogii told us that if we were to climb the mountain slope very quietly, we would have a good chance of sneaking up onto the leopard, with possibility of a close observation.
We all got nervous… went down the valley, had a quick lunch, dressed light and all of us took just the big lens on our back. No more words were said. The steep hike began.
Heart rate 180, climbing a ridge that you know has a snow leopard laying on it, and hoping for the animal to not hear us… was a special cocktail of emotions.
And sure enough, when we peaked around the corner, we saw the dead yak and the yak’s mother… casually standing next to a sleeping snow leopard.
Uncropped image of a sleeping snow leopard. (Really sorry for the heat vibrations causing the image to be less sharp than expected)
We were baffled by the fact that the mother yak had no fear what so ever and even chased after the leopard when it ran away.
Fearless mother Yak keeping guard of her dead calf.
Meat is murder, that also goes in snow leopard land.
The following two days Pj, Billy and myself each sat in our hides, waiting for the leopard to show up on the kill site. He came every night but was reluctant to appear in front of our hides during daytimes. So all those many hours (getting in the hide at 5 am, getting out at 6pm) to do little more than gaping through my viewfinder, warming my hands on the (mutual!) pee bottle and hearing PJ say he was not cold at all whilst hearing Billy chatter his teeth in the tent next door.
So as a last try we did once more what we tried on the first day, sneaking up on the leopard. And this time the air was not vibrating, the cat was there and we took many images:
Huge relief to see this in your viewfinder after a few gnarly days. Big male snow leopard, high up in the Altai mountains!
That image concludes our trip.
And what a special trip it was.
Big thanks to Billy and Starling reizen in general to organize this trip.
Also big thanks to our guides Bogii and Oogii. Privilege working with you.
Big thanks to Eli for letting me do this.