Conservation Faces: Bayara Agvaantseren
Bayara Argvaantseren is the Director of the Snow Leopard Trust Mongolia, and one of the co-founders of the Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation. Both organisations are leaders in their field of protecting the elusive snow leopard and its habitat.
Bayara won the 2019 Goldman Award this year, which was a huge achievement for her and her work. The Award was given to her in recognition of her role in securing the first ever protected snow leopard nature reserve and preventing mining in the area,
We spoke to Bayara about how she came to dedicate her life to protecting the snow leopard and what it’s like to work in the field in such a remote part of the world.
When did you first become interested in wildlife and what was your first memory of needing to help animals and the environment?
I grew up in Northern Mongolia, very close to nature in a remote town close to the wilderness. During school breaks in summer, I used to go to the countryside to help my grandmother tend to her livestock and that made me feel very close to nature. She taught me a lot about local plants and how to harvest wild berries. But in this part of Mongolia, we didn’t have snow leopards.
As a young child at school, I was taught about local wildlife like red deer, musk deer, marmots and of course wolves; but not about snow leopards. When I was an adult, and I started working for the conservation of the snow leopard, I became even more interested about wildlife and I finally began to know more about the big cats.
Why did you decide to dedicate your life and career to protecting wildlife?
Snow leopards are of course very beautiful, but also very secretive. I started working with Dr. Tom McCarthy to find out the threats facing snow leopards. Talking to local people, I saw that poaching of snow leopards and negative attitudes from local people is a big threat to the cats. I felt like I could help snow leopard conservation by building collaborations with local people. That was a very important turning point for me. I decided to work for conservation and not to go back to my other job, and I decided to make conservation my career. I began working with local people to improve their lives, and we started snow leopard enterprises [handicraft program] in 1998 and I have been managing it since then.
How did you come to work with Snow Leopard Trust & the Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation?
We created the Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation (SLCF) in 2007. We needed more effort and time dedicated to snow leopard conservation, and I realized that Mongolia needed better capacity and a stronger team to work for snow leopards. I think within the country, we had quite low capacity to do snow leopard work and we had limited information and resources. That was the turning point when we needed to create this new organisation. SLCF is the only organisation in Mongolia solely focused on snow leopard conservation, which makes us unique from other organisations. Even before we were formally registered, we were working with the Snow Leopard Trust and today we continue to share a very close partnership.
What is one of the biggest achievements of your career?
Formation of the new Tost-Tosonbumba nature reserve [Mongolia’s first protected areas designated specifically for snow leopards] is definitely a big achievement for me. Another big achievement is that local people are now collaborating with conservation organisations—the fact that they are doing this and the ways in which they are doing this are now much different and at a much higher level than before. I am seeing that local people are realising they have a great amount of power and voice. This is something my team has worked on for many years, and now I have started to see these changes within our partner communities—and this feels great.
What does a ‘day in the life’ look like for you?
Our headquarters are in the capital city of Ulanbaataar. I discuss with my team individually what their tasks are, and we have weekly staff meeting to talk about who is working on what and what needs to be done.
The normal day is making phone calls, talking to governmental offices, having meetings and working on emails. I’ll also have calls with local people to talk about issues with our different programs, like snow leopard enterprises and livestock insurance.
In the field—for me and for anyone else—the days are much longer! There are also no weekends for us. It takes 10-14 days to reach out-field sites in the South, and we’re usually out at least a week to 10 days. Visiting families takes lots of time and everything is very spread apart, so we try to do as much as we can when we are in the field–we can’t just do one thing. We visit families, host workshops, have full-day meetings with the local governor’s office, and travel to our research base camp.
At base camp, it’s really important for me to do hiking too. When I go into the field, I always travel with my camera and I like to have a matchbox in case we need to make a fire. In my emergency kit I have a very little bottle of vodka because when you visit different kinds of places and families, you can get food poisoning or sick from the water, which is very different in the Gobi. So my treatment is to have a couple shots of vodka!
What are some of the major challenges you face doing your job?
Bureaucracy, lack of awareness, and lack of networking between different levels of government. There is not lots of collaboration and networking, so I have to spend a lot of time to get people at different levels working together, which makes a lot of decisions take longer. Also, I feel like when you are a woman initiating something and working towards these things, you have to work twice as hard. In the field, at the local level, there are women who are quite motivated and active. But there are very few women at the highest levels of government, and I still see gender imbalance. Overall, these challenges mean I must push harder, and wait longer to get things done.
What do you enjoy and find most rewarding about your job?
The most rewarding thing is that local people have started realising that in order to save their livelihoods they need to be working with conservation. This realization and motivation has taken a long time to achieve, and this attitude has been hard to change. But it’s rewarding to see local people think this way now. I see a number of local volunteer rangers and local people making public statements and fighting for their land and wildlife.
Do you feel positive about the future of Snow Leopards and their habitat?
Yes, I do—you have to be positive! I know that it’s hard and there always challenges. But I am positive about saving snow leopards for future generations. Of course, we have a lot of obstacles to overcome and lots of work to do; but a lot has changed since I started in 1998.
If you would like to support Bayara and the work that Snow Leopard Trust do, then you can donate here: davidshepherd.org/donate