By REBECCA COOK
On April 14, Parliament approved the proposal to form the Tost Tosunbumba National Park. The decision is a significant achievement for the continued struggle to protect the endangered snow leopard species that resides there, as well as for the global conservation effort. The new National Park status means that the area will be immune to hunting, mining and development; only traditional procedures that pose no threat to the habitat will be permitted. The UB Post interviewed Bayarjargal Agvantseeren, a key figure whose dedication and determination was crucial to this recent success, and the leader of Mongolia’s Snow Leopard Conservation Fund (SLCF) and Director of the Snow Leopard Trust’s (SLT) Mongolia Program.
Why did you get involved in conservation?
I have been involved in conservation since 1996, when I had an opportunity to translate for American biologist Dr Tom McCarthy in the Gobi-Altay. As part of his research on snow leopards, he wanted to find out about herder attitudes towards predators such as wolves and snow leopards. Interview findings showed that there was a stronger human wildlife conflict which needed to be explored more. This inspired me to become involved in snow leopard conservation. In 1998, we created Snow Leopard Enterprises (SLE), a program that brings economic benefit to both people and snow leopards. Since then I have been working in this field.
What provoked you to dedicate your career to snow leopard protection in particular?
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, many species today, 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’s survival. It is the reason I dedicated my career to snow leopard conservation.
How long have you been concerned with this region?
Since 2008, when we started a long term ecological study and then we learned this snow leopard habitat was being given away for mining licences. As you know, a couple weeks ago Tost Tosonbumba mountains were approved as a State Protected Area of Mongolia by Parliament. It took five years of effort to reach this goal.
I understand the area was made a Local Protected Area in 2010. Why did you feel this was not enough, and decided to strive to make it a State Protected Area?
When we started our ecological study in 2008, we learned that it is one of the most important habitats of the snow leopard, not only in Mongolia, but globally, and which carries a viable breading population with the highest density. We also learned that there was an effort to make the area protected by local people, since neigboring pasture land had been given away to mining companies. A Chair Meeting of Gurvantes Soum made the decision to make the area locally protected in 2010, but it was seen that this protection was not enough when local government’s rights and responsibilities were not neccesarily acknowlegded. That is why we started pursuing the National Park status in 2010.
What processes were involved in securing this National Park status?
Mongolia has good laws,giving more rights and responsibilities to local government and people, unfortunately there are shortcomings with enforcement. In the case of Tost Tosonbumba, since the area was given away to mining companies, it was challenging to move it to a National Park. By law, we had to follow a step by step process which includes the soum, provincial, central governments and, finally, Parliament. To make it a State Protected Area, the Provincial Chair Meeting of Umnugobi proposed this to the Ministry of Environment, Green Development and Tourism. The ministry then proposed a request to the Cabinet for approval three times, but they declined to pass it on to Parliament due to the current economic challenges in the coutry. The Protected Area Law also allows that an independent or group of Parliament members can propose it to Parliament, which was the case for Tost Tosonbumba. I would like to say thank you to a number of Parliament members led by L.Erdenechimeg and Ts.Oyungerel who submitted it to Parliament.
Did you expect it to take as long as it did?
Before we started working on this, we did not think it would take this long. Once we started the work, progress was slow and showed us it was going to take longer than we expected.
How effective and receptive were the local and provincial government to the proposal?
I would like to express my gratitute to the local and provincial governments. It was a collaborative effort with them.
I understand the local community was enormously helpful to the process; how did they help and why do you think they were as motivated as your team?
Yes, their support and motivation was unlimited and making Tost Tosonbumba National Park was a locals’ initiative. They are the ones who wanted to save their land and wildlife. Everytime it failed at the Cabinet meeting, their support got stronger. It is rangeland for 300 households with their 31,000 livestock. Local people organized a number of important campaigns to influence decision makers, such as sending letters, petition campaigns and media discussions, as well as higher level civil meetings. To name a few; 1,059 letters from local people were sent to the Standing Committee of Petition of Parliament and their participation in a Presidential Civil Hall Meeting was of much help.
There are still mining permits in the region. How do you think the government will deal with these?
Yes, there are mining licences. After Parliament’s decision to make it a State Protected Area as a Nature Reserve, there are sixty days given to clarify boundaries of the Protected Area. For wildlife and ecosystem sustainability, the area needs to be taken as a whole. I hope the government will consider it.
Do you think mining is the main threat to habitats and biodiversity in Mongolia?
Yes, if it is not considered and carefully planned. Mining is not the only solution to the economy; wildlife can bring potential revenue through tourism.
What is the next step in establishing the Tost Tosonbumba National Park?
There are a lot things to do. SLCF started implementing its management plan for the Local Protected Area with the involvement of local communities. Through the management plan a lot has already been done, including wildlife research and employing local rangers to co-manage the area. The management plan we have been implementing will be the foundation of future management for the National Park.
Do you think visitation is crucial in National Park maintenance? If so, how do you propose this is maintained, if not, what do you think the important factors are?
I think management is the most important. The Mongolian law for Protected Areas states that the Nature Reserve is administered by local government which provides greater opportunities for local people and government to manage the park. There is also the option that NGO’s can manage Protected Areas under a contract with the ministry and local government. Since SLCF started managing the area with the collaboration of local communities, we would like to see this continues on a regular basis. SLCF can manage the area under current Protected Area Law, bringing education and tourism as part of the management planning for domestic and international visitors. The more people that find out about the Protected Area and the snow leopard sanctuary through visitation, the more they will want to see it well-protected.
This is a landmark decision in protecting the snow leopard. What more do you think can be done in Mongolia and abroad to ensure the protection of this endangered species?
Yes, this is the first Nature Reserve dedicated to snow leopard protection. With this globalized world, countries like Mongolia need to strive for high international standards and proactivity with their planning and implementation of conservation for endangered species.
I have read about your extensive wildlife research, which I understand is ongoing. Can you provide some insight into your findings thus far in relation to the nature of the snow leopard?
A Comprehensive Long Term Ecological Study in Tost Tosonbumba mountains was launched in 2008 with the collaboration between SLCF, the SLT, the Mongolian Academy of Science, the National University of Mongolia, and other partners. The study found that the Tost Mountains of Gurvantes represent a highly important habitat supporting a large breeding population of this rare species. We used satellite telemetry to understand ecology, ranging, behavior and dispersal of snow leopards, which found that home range sizes vary between 75 to 350 square kilometers, depending on sex and age of the cat, and that snow leopards hunt every 10 days with their primary prey being ibex and argali.
Camera trapping was used in Tost and neighboring areas to estimate snow leopard populations, their population dynamics (changes, survival, life expectancy, and migration) and the relationship between habitats and behavior. This showed that snow leopard populations might be constant but also undergoing rapid changes; an adult snow leopard’s life expectancy is five to six years (young until the age of two); populations from different mountains were shown to be connected over vast steppe, enabling temporary and permanent emigration/immigration of individuals and behavioural insights into marking behaviour of individuals. Prey surveys for population estimation of ibex and argali were also done, estimating ibex at 1,000 and argali population at 250 in Tost Tosonbumba.
More studies are ongoing, like disease and pathogens and their possible spread between wildlife, livestock and humans sharing bodies of water, and the impact of livestock on vegetation, wild ungulates and snow leopards.
Do you think successes like this are becoming more difficult to attain as focus turns to commercial interest over the needs of the environment?
Yes, our experience increating and protecting Tost Tosonbumba National Park has not been easy and required a lot of time and effort.
How successful do you think Mongolia is when it comes to conservation?
I think Mongolia can be successful with its good environmental laws and regulations, but there are still challenges with enforcement caused by insufficient funds and lack of human resources. It raises questions of how conservation is taken into account. Conservation needs to be considered as an important aspect of Mongolia’s development and it is not something to be done on a voluntary basis anymore. Of course there are many successful programs for conservation in Mongolia. For example, Mongolia is one of the leading countries in the world for the conservation of snow leopards. I would like to emphasize that there is an ongoing need for broad public conservation education and awareness in Mongolia.