Roughing It on the Trail of a Snow Leopard Tale

A trip to central Asia to report on how the international wildlife trade is driving species such as the snow leopard to extinction includes obstacles that nearly drive the reporter to distraction.

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Earlier this week, in her story for Radio Expeditions, Elizabeth Arnold reported from Central Asia about how the international wildlife trade is driving species like the snow leopard to extinction.

Here's a story from her Reporter's Notebook.

ELIZABETH ARNOLD: I spent most of my time in Mongolia - and I do mean outer Mongolia - in an old Russian jeep with six other people and one small child, all sitting on each other's laps. We bounced and jolted, grunted, and shifted weight in positions as best we could to a vast landscape devoid of roads and any other people.

Getting to and from our destination - snow leopard habitat - was much more arduous and challenging than actually tracking the elusive cat. Our jeep broke down repeatedly in places where the phrase in the middle of nowhere would be an understatement. As the engine began to sputter out, the driver would find the nearest hill and swerve to stall out on top of it, facing the wind, presumably to cool the engine.

(Soundbite engine sounds)

Unidentified Man: (unintelligible)

ARNOLD: There we would sit as the men would play cards and sing songs -nothing was out of the ordinary - while the driver would work on the jeep with bits of string and a bicycle pump.

It's a little unnerving to feel claustrophobic in a place that boasts the least population per square mile of any country in the world. But perhaps my need for personal space was also driven in part by the raw mutton, wrapped loosely in newspaper that laid baking in the sun on the dashboard. Suffice to say, arriving finally at a single canvas yurt or ger, stubbornly clinging to the ground in the place as windswept as Dorothy's Kansas, was pure joy. And hiking up and into the nearby alpine peaks in search of snow leopard tracks even more so. Of course, it was a blow to hear the lead biologist and tracker, Munkhtsog, casually admit I had little or no chance of seeing a snow leopard.

MUNKHTSOG (Biologist and Tracker): I was working with the snow leopards more than 13 years, and I have seen just two white snow leopards.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ARNOLD: While I suddenly realized the story would be lacking its star attraction, I found myself choking back tears thinking how remote, lonely and yet beautiful a place this was - this from someone who's been to the North Pole. Of course, that emotional moment was before we headed back down to the tiny yurt, where all eight of us gathered around the stove - fueled by yak dung - for a delicious meal made from what had been on the dashboard - mutton soup.

WERTHEIMER: Reporter Elizabeth Arnold.

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