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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Snow leopards are among the world's most endangered big cats. An estimated 3,000 to 6,000 remain the wild. Although they are a protected species under several international treaties, snow leopards are rapidly in decline.

In this National Geographic Radio Expedition, Elizabeth Arnold tracks this elusive predator with those who want to protect it.

ELIZABETH ARNOLD: You can find everything from iPods to ibex skin in (unintelligible) markets like this one in remote western China. In one store, the price of a fake snow leopard pelt is displayed on both a calculator and an ancient abacus. In the back, the real pelt sells for a 100 times more. This market of pelt, bones and antlers is one end of the illegal wildlife trade. The other end is hundreds of miles away, high in the rugged ridgelines of Central Asia.

(Soundbite of train)

ARNOLD: On the trans-Mongolian railway from Beijing to Unbathar(ph) you know you're crossing the Gobi Desert from the dust. The fine brown sand creeps in through the windows and coats everything.

(Soundbite of train)

ARNOLD: We're headed much further, to the far northwest corner of outer Mongolia, the northernmost range of the Altay Mountains, home of the snow leopard.

(Soundbite of train)

On the last leg of the trip, we grind along in a battered jeep for another full day, climbing higher into the mountains. Finally, we stopped and Munkhtsog, our guide, announces this is it.

Mr. BARIUSHAA MUNKHTSOG (Program Director, International Snow Leopard Trust): So we are in Yammat Valley(ph).

ARNOLD: Yammat Valley is a vast room swept place bordered by snowcapped peaks. Munkhtsog scans the ridgeline, small energetic man. He's a wildlife biologist and the Mongolian program director of the International Snow Leopard Trust.

Mr. MUNKHTSOG: So this is (unintelligible) habitat for the snow leopard. And the snow leopard population density is quite high because the idea was to protect since 1974.

ARNOLD: Munkhtsog has spent more than a decade tracking snow leopards and has only seen two in the wild. We have no expectation of seeing one, but do hope to find sign.

Mr. MUNKHTSOG: And the snow leopards like to travel certain places, and they are also mark certain landscapes to communicate with each other. It's like language of people to talk with each other.

ARNOLD: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MUNKHTSOG: Let's go and see.

ARNOLD: OK.

Mr. MUNKHTSOG: Yeah. Look for sign.

ARNOLD: Munkhtsog surveyed this area intensely in 1997, and ever since, it's been part of a monitoring project that ranges from here to the southern Gobi Desert. By keeping close tabs on the cats and their prey, biologists can determine whether and where they're being poached.

ERDENBAATAR: (Unintelligible).

ARNOLD: Erdenbaatar is the local ranger here. He and Munkhtsog know just what to look for: scratch marks on trees, shallow holes or scrapes in the ground and scent marks on rocks from urine.

Mr. MUNKHTSOG: Look at this. You see this is like some oil on the stone. Yeah

ARNOLD: Yeah, wet.

Mr. MUNKHTSOG: Yeah, wet. So this is a - it's probably a part, a scent (unintelligible). Oh, yeah, you can smell.

ERDENBAATAR: (Speaking foreign language).

Mr. MUNKHTSOG: You want to try?

(Soundbite of laughter)

ARNOLD: Oh, oh, whoa!

Mr. MUNKHTSOG: It's…

ARNOLD: Strong.

Mr. MUNKHTSOG: It's strong, different, you know.

ARNOLD: OK. These scent markings are territorial and helps snow leopards locate mates during the breeding season.

ERDENBAATAR: (Speaking foreign language)

ARNOLD: Erdenbaatar, in a deep blue Mongolian coat cinched with a bright orange sash, picks his way easily up the steep slopes, pointing out scrapes and tracks to Munkhtsog every few hundred feet.

ERDENBAATAR: (Speaking foreign language)

Mr. MUNKHTSOG: (Unintelligible) this one is called -

ARNOLD Seven years old.

ERDENBAATAR: (Speaking foreign language)

Mr. MUNKHTSOG: Tracks of snow leopard.

ARNOLD: Oh, from their claws.

Mr. MUNKHTSOG: Yes, claws. I would say it's three or four years old snow leopard, young one.

ARNOLD: Yeah.

Mr. MUNKHTSOG: Yes.

ARNOLD: From this past year of tracking, the two estimate there are as many as 20 cats from this area, a high number considering how endangered they are.

Why do you think that this is important work to be doing?

ERDENBAATAR: (Speaking foreign language)

Mr. MUNKHTSOG: I think we need to protect snow leopards, because where there is snow leopard, there is everything.

ARNOLD: Just a sign that everything…

Mr. MUNKHTSOG: A sign, yes, yes. (Unintelligible)

ARNOLD: But both are reluctant to say that the situation here is getting better. It's hard to get by herding sheep; poaching just a single snow leopard is highly lucrative and demand from China for pelts and bone is on the rise.

(Soundbite of jeep engine)

ERDENBAATAR: (Speaking foreign language)

ARNOLD: In the valley below, we duck out of the wind and inside Erdenbaatar's small canvass yurt for mutton soup and milk tea. His wife, Sandileg, keeps the fire going, boils the mutton and serves the men. She too is involved in snow leopard conservation, teaching other women to make wool handicraft, a project designed to relieve the economic pressure to poach.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

ARNOLD: Early the next morning we set out to look for ibex, a type of wild mountain goat with large curved horns, a staple of the snow leopard's diet. Munkhtsog spots some almost immediately.

Mr. MUNKHTSOG: Do you see them?

ARNOLD: I think…

Mr. MUNKHTSOG: On steep hills, right?

ARNOLD: Yeah.

Mr. MUNKHTSOG: Just below (unintelligible).

ARNOLD: Just below there.

Mr. MUNKHTSOG: (Unintelligible).

ARNOLD: Oh, now, they're moving now.

Mr. MUNKHTSOG: They are just moving and that - oh, look at that. You can see there on the top.

ARNOLD: Oh.

ERDENBAATAR: (Unintelligible).

Mr. MUNKHTSOG: In the…

ARNOLD: And their profile.

MR. MUNKHTSOG: In the sky, profile. Yeah. So that's very nice. Oh, look at there, more.

ARNOLD: The Mongolians are pleased as it's a sure sign that the snow leopards will have plenty of wild prey through the winter. On the way back, we make one last stop at a large black rock, which at first glance looks as if it is covered with lichens. Upon closer look, they're petroglyphs, dozens of beautiful carvings in the rock.

Mr. MUNKHTSOG: Carving on the rock made 3,000 years ago…

ARNOLD: Yeah.

Mr. MUNKHTSOG: …by Mongolians. I mean if I (unintelligible) you can see (unintelligible) and the (unintelligible) very clearly.

ARNOLD: Oh, they're supposed to be ibex. You can just make out the antlers legs and tails of each animal.

Mr. MUNKHTSOG: So what there do we see?

ERDENBAATAR: (Speaking foreign language)

Mr. MUNKHTSOG: (Unintelligible) any snow leopards.

ARNOLD: Yeah.

ERDENBAATAR: (Speaking foreign language)

Mr. MUNKHTSOG: Oh, look at it.

ARNOLD: Oh.

Mr. MUNKHTSOG: This man…

ARNOLD: Yeah.

Mr. MUNKHTSOG: with two legs, with two hands, (unintelligible).

ARNOLD: Sure enough, circled by carvings of ibex, sheep, lynx and snow leopards is the likeness of a man, hitching up his long cloak and crouching closer. Erdenbaatar traces the carvings with his finger and nods in acknowledgment. All must have lived here in this valley together all this time. Looking back up at the ridgeline, he softly begins a song his daughter and wife were singing earlier this morning.

ERDENBAATAR: (Singing) (Speaking foreign language)

ARNOLD: The words are simple. If you live in harmony with nature, you're life will be better and the land will be softer for you.

ERDENBAATAR: (Singing) (Speaking foreign language)

For Radio Expedition, I'm Elizabeth Arnold.

MONTAGNE: Radio Expeditions is a co-production of NPR and the National Geographic Society. You can see the snow leopards and the people trying to save them in Mongolia at npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

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