I visited Mongolia in March 2019 for two weeks together with Lucky De Silva, a classmate in the 1960’s from my days at S. Thomas’ College, Gurutalawa. The main focus was to photograph the wild life in Mongolia, especially the secret hunter in the mountains of Jargalant Khairkhan, the Snow Leopard, in Khovd Province of Western Mongolia. According to available information, Mongolia is host to approximately 20-25% of the estimated global Snow Leopard population.
As planned, we landed at the Chinggis Khaan International airport in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia on 10th March. We stayed there for three nights before we boarded an internal flight to Khovd. Mr. Baatar the owner of the tour company was our guide from this point of the tour. The name Chinggis Khaan (Genghis Khan) will be familiar to those who are aware of world history. He was the founder and first Great Khan of the Mongol Empire.
During our stay in the capital we visited the Hustai National Park(HNP) located 100 km away from the city. At this park, Mongolian wild horses also known as the Przewalski’s wild horses can be seen. These horses were once extinct but were bred in captivity and reintroduced to the wild. The majority of them are at the HNP.
On arrival at the Khovd airport on 13th March we were driven to the base camp in the mountains of the Jargalant Khairkhan. We stayed seven nights at the camp in search of the magnificent cat of the snow mountain. The camp had a few Mongolian yurts known as “uyangliin ger” which are portable tents which have a round shape and covered with skin or felt. The camp was located at an elevation above 3,000 meters and had basic facilities. During our stay at the base camp we had to walk in the high, rugged mountains of the Jargalant Khairkhan in search of the Snow Leopard. We had the facility of using horses to travel to accessible locations, when needed.
Mr Baatar had hired three local Snow Leopard spotters. One of them had worked for WWF in Khovd and had vast knowledge of the movement of leopards in the area with extensive experience in spotting the cats. They supported us in carrying our camera equipment and tripods including the drone which I used for aerial photography of the beautiful mountains and terrain in Khovd Province. On the first three days we didn’t have much luck and were only able to spot the pug marks of the cat. It was on the fourth day morning while we were walking, an hour from the base camp when the WWF guide spotted the movement of two leopards on a rocky mountain which was opposite to the direction of our walking path. It took a few seconds for me to spot the two cats while others helped me set up the tripod and camera equipment. One of the cats moved away from our sight but other I was able to photograph. I used a Canon lens 800 mm with 2X extender with an adaptor to connect to a Sony a9 body. It was a great sighting! The images were better than the ones I had taken in Ladakh in India in 2018. We also had a sighting of a pair of Saiga Antelope at far, considered to be a critically endangered species.
We had no further sightings of the cat for the rest of the days at Jargalant Khairkhan. Thereafter, we drove to Ulgii to witness the annual traditional event of the Nauryz Golden Eagle Festival. The Kazakh eagle hunters celebrate their heritage and compete with their skill to catch small animals such as foxes and hares with trained Golden Eagles. It was the first time that I had seen an event of this nature. But I do not approve of the capture of young Eaglets from the nest to train over a period to achieve the skill needed to participate at the annual event.
Our original tour plan was to take a flight from Ulgii to the capital, but as per Baatar’s suggestion we drove all the way to Ulaanbaatar to experience more Mongolian Wild on the way, with Baatar on the driving seat. We stayed three nights on the way to the capital covering 1,500 km in four days while some routes were off the road. We had sightings of many birds including birds of prey such as Common Krestal, Common Buzzard and Cinereous Vulture. It was also the period of migration of large herds of domesticated camel, sheep, goat, horses and yaks in search of food and moving to a new location with the seasonal climate change together with their masters.
After a very successful wild life tour in Mongolia we returned to Sri Lanka on the 29th March.