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Ambassadors Programme

Ambassador

Thorsten Milse

Dec01

The ghost of the mountains

By Thorsten Milse, Tuesday December 01, 2015
A rare snow leopard sighting in Mongolia's mountains. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D C with an EF600mm f/4L IS II USM lens and an EF1.4x III extender.

A rare snow leopard sighting in Mongolia's mountains.
Taken on a Canon EOS-1D C with an EF600mm f/4L IS II USM lens and an EF1.4x III extender. © Thorsten Milse/WWF

Recently, I received an assignment with a special mission: photograph snow leopards in the Altai Mountains. It’s a tough job at 3000-4000 metres above sea level and on brittle rock, with temperatures below -20° Celsius and carrying a heavy backpack and sturdy tripod. I came prepared for any situation with three camera bodies, EF600mm and EF200-400mm telephotos as well as several smaller lenses. I needed a biologist, a local herder and a lot of luck to get to within photo distance of the predator.

The snow leopard is elusive, mysterious and endangered. Few humans have seen them in the wild. Even fewer have seen them up-close. The World Wildlife Fund offered me the chance to be within a few feet of these majestic beasts, as scientists worked on unlocking the secrets of snow leopards which inhabit Mongolia’s Altai-Sayan mountains.

Snow leopards are found in 12 countries in northern Asia, with a total population of 4000-6500 individuals. They have declined as much as 20 percent over the past two decades due to a wide range of threats; from poaching to habitat loss to climate change. In 1988, they were officially declared as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources’ Red List. Mongolia happens to host the second largest population of snow leopards worldwide.

The goal of the two-week expedition to the icy mountains was to gather crucial data on snow leopard behaviour by using a GPS system which uploads their location to a database via satellite. This data will show how to effectively protect the snow leopards’ homeland. The hope is to reverse the trend and increase the snow leopard population.

The task was extremely difficult. The biologists were professional (and lucky) enough to catch, collar and release two snow leopards. What an amazing start for the future of this fascinating species!

Camels walking along the Altai Mountains. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D C with an EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens.

Camels walking along the Altai Mountains.
Taken on a Canon EOS-1D C with an EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens. © Thorsten Milse/WWF