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Snow leopard, Yamaat Valley, MongoliaTurgen Mountains, Yamaat, MongoliaSnow Leopard, Mongolia. Remote camera donated by Nat Hab & GuestsSiberian ibex, Khar Us Nuur National Park, MongoliaKhovd River Valley, Khovd Province, MongoliaMongolian herdsmen, Yamaat Valley, MongoliaTakhi horses, Hustai National Park, MongoliaSnow leopard, Yamaat Valley, MongoliaDemoiselle crane, Hustai National Park, MongoliaNat Hab Camp, Western MongoliaGer, Yamaat Valley. Mongolia
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Mongolia: In Search of the Snow Leopard

A Rare Chance to Track the Elusive Cat with WWF Scientists in Western Mongolia
Day 1: Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Arrive in Ulaanbaatar, scenically situated in the Tuul River Valley. Though 40 percent of Mongolians continue to live traditional nomadic lifestyles, nearly half the country’s residents live here in Mongolia’s capital of 1.2 million. We spend the afternoon exploring the city, beginning with a walk to nearby Sukhbaatar Square, home to the Parliament Building and statue of Genghis Khan, storied leader of what was once the world’s largest empire. Next we visit the Museum of Natural History, accompanied by a local expert, to see its exhibits on Mongolia’s flora and fauna including a remarkable collection of dinosaur artifacts. Winding up a fascinating day, we learn more about the adventures to come over a welcome dinner with our Expedition Leader at a local restaurant.

Day 2: Ulaangom / Gulzat
This morning we leave the bustle of Ulaanbaatar behind for the vast and remote expanses of far-west Mongolia. We fly into Ulaangom, the capital of Uvs Aimag, one of Mongolia’s most westerly provinces, and the lowest point of our adventure at 3,061 feet above sea level. A typical Soviet-style town with tree-lined streets, a central square and dilapidated gray buildings, Ulaangom is also home to WWF’s community-based wildlife management program supporting the Protected Area (PA) of Uvs Nuur, the largest saltwater lake in Mongolia. Soon we leave dusty Ulaangom behind as we drive west into wilder landscapes near the Russian border, reaching Gulzat Protected Area and Uureg Nuur, a brackish lake surrounded by stunning mountain peaks. Near the lake, which is a major stopping point for migratory birds, are several examples of Bronze Age burial mounds. We overnight at our tented camp, savoring simple comforts including mobile hot-water heated showers.

Day 3: Gulzat
While western Mongolia seems like the ultimate ‘back of beyond,’ the pace of development in the Altai-Sayan region poses a severe threat to the ecoregion’s unique biodiversity. This mosaic of mountains, coniferous forests, steppe and alpine meadows at the nexus of Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan and China harbors a great variety of plants and animals and has been identified by WWF as a priority region for conservation.

In the Protected Area of Gulzat, encompassing over 100 square miles, we meet several of those important and rare species, including the Siberian marmot and the northernmost distribution of black-tailed gazelle. The region is also an important migration corridor for argali—the world’s largest wild sheep and favored prey of the snow leopard. We spend the day exploring by vehicle and on foot in the company of nomadic herders and conservation workers, anticipating sightings of local wildlife and learning firsthand how community-centered conservation works in this region where livestock exists alongside predators like wolves and lynx. Today’s cultural exchange offers some of the most memorable encounters of our journey of discovery.

Days 4-6: Yamaat Valley—In Search of the Snow Leopard
Our quest for the snow leopard begins as we head into the valley of Yamaat, at nearly 8,500 feet. Tucked into the Altai Range at the base of Turgen and Harhiraa mountains, two of the highest peaks in Mongolia, Yamaat is prime snow leopard habitat. This beautiful and highly endangered feline, known locally as irbis, is the largest predator in the mountains of Central Asia and is renowned for its grace and rarity. The snow leopard is also a keystone species, a marker for the overall health and integrity of this high-altitude ecosystem.

We begin with introductions to the local residents who are community partners of the conservation group and WWF partner Snow Leopard Trust, learning about their nomadic lifestyle and traditions and how they manage the cohabitation of their livestock with the resident snow leopards. We’ll also learn more about WWF's work to protect the snow leopard through education for sustainable development and the control of illegal wildlife trade and mining in the area.

During the next two days we’ll hike in the surrounding mountains under the direction of the local anti-poaching unit, as we search for signs of the elusive snow leopard. While the population density of snow leopards is quite high here, the cats are notoriously difficult to see, their silver spotted coats providing excellent camouflage against the stark, rocky landscape. Our routes are flexible, affording us the ability to move to areas with the most frequent sightings. We may see fresh tracks and territorial markings while scouting for the adept predator as it moves along high cliffs stalking its prey. The region is also home to the Siberian ibex, a large wild goat that is also a preferred prey of the snow leopard. After long but exhilarating days of exploration, we return in the evenings to our base camp for dinner and time to rest up for the adventures ahead.

Day 7: Khovd Province
A full day’s drive takes us from Yamaat Valley into western Mongolia’s Great Lakes Basin. Designated a WWF Ecoregion for its extraordinary value as a biodiversity hotspot, the basin contains expansive reed beds, sprawling marshes that support a multitude of birds and other wildlife. The sharp counterpoint of high peaks and steppe bordering the vast wetlands creates a distinctive and contrasting landscape. These arid plains, which receive less than five inches of rain each year, support several globally endangered species, including the last remaining population of Mongolian saiga—a migratory species of antelope. Hardy nomads are also home in these austere environs, grazing horses, Bactrian camels, cashmere goats, sheep and cows on the broad steppe. We camp again tonight en route to our next destination.

Days 8-10: Khar Us Nuur National Park
After a half-day drive we arrive at the Jargalant Hairhan (hairhan means “sacred”) Mountain area of Khar Us Nuur National Park, another key snow leopard habitat. Here we’ll meet members of the Jargalant Orgil community, a nomadic group that moves between lake and mountainside depending on the seasons. Local partners with both WWF and the International Snow Leopard Trust, the group has also formed a cooperative to make felt handicrafts, which we may have a chance to observe firsthand. Visiting with them, we learn more about promising efforts to reduce human-snow leopard conflicts.

Flanked by mountains and surrounded by arid steppe, Khar Us Nuur (Black Water Lake) National Park is home to the largest reed beds in Central Asia. Sharing similar characteristics with Tibet’s remote Changtang Plateau, the park is also known for the healing powers of its sacred spring, frequented by locals. Exploring the area on guided hikes, we’ll observe prolific birdlife that may include Altai snowcock, lammergeiers, chukars and wallcreepers, as well as mammals like Siberian ibex, argali sheep, Mongolian antelope, Bactrian camel ,and the elusive “reed boar,” a wild boar uniquely adapted to living in the reed bed environment.

Day 11: Khovd
A four-hour drive takes us to the town of Khovd, an ancient center for trade, business and administration that was established during the Qing Dynasty when the Manchu Chinese built a military garrison here. Khovd is also distinguished by its multicultural population. It is home to more than 17 nationalities and ethnicities, each of which has its own distinct traditional dwelling and settlement pattern, and literary, artistic and musical traditions. Here we hope to meet with the provincial governor and former head of the WWF field office, Mr. Tseveenravdan, to learn about local projects and his experiences in conservation efforts with WWF.

Day 12: Hustai National Park
This morning we fly back to Ulaanbaatar, then drive to Hustai National Park. Set aside as a reserve in 1993 to re-establish the native Takhi, or Przewalski’s horse, which became extinct in the wild in the 1960s, Hustai’s quarter-million acres are now home to more than 200 Takhi horses that roam freely on the protected plains. The last surviving wild ancestor of the domestic horse, the Takhi is a genetically distinct equine species—not a breed—that possesses two extra chromosomes in its DNA. Also roaming the park’s mountain steppe and birch forests are elk, wolf, lynx and black-tailed gazelle, as well as 172 species of birds including the steppe eagle, demoiselle crane and cinereous vulture. We spend the night in a classic Mongolian ger camp on the edge of the national park.

Day 13: Hustai / Ulaanbaatar
Our day begins with an early-morning game drive in search of the Takhi, and perhaps a glimpse of elk as well. After breakfast we return by road to Ulaanbaatar. Once back in the capital, we visit Gandan Khiid, Mongolia’s most important Buddhist monastery. Although Buddhism was hit hard during the Stalinist purges of the 1930s, and most monasteries were destroyed, what remains of Gandan is captivating. The focal point of a resurgent Buddhism in Mongolia, it houses a recently rebuilt 75-foot-high copper and gold statue covered in precious stones called Migjid Janraisig, which means “The Lord Who Looks in Every Direction.” WWF has worked closely with the monastery’s head lama to promote environmental awareness. This afternoon we’re privileged to meet with the director of WWF Mongolia, Chimed-Ochir Bazarsad (if available) and his team of conservationists to learn about projects within the country. Our exceptional adventure concludes with a farewell dinner at a local restaurant this evening.

Day 14: Ulaanbaatar / Home
Transfer to the airport for departing international flights.

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