With one of the world’s densest populations of snow leopards, Mongolia is among the best places to see one in the wild—if you can find them, writes Mark Daffey, who was lucky to visit before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold.

Ochirjav Munkhtogtokh grew up in a family of nomadic herders in Mongolia’s far west. As a youngster, he would occasionally spot snow leopards lurking around the fringes of the livestock herds he was tasked with looking after.

Knowing how rare they were, they fascinated him, and he soon became captivated by the leopards’ strength and beauty, even after they had managed to poach an easy meal.

As he grew up, Munkhtogtokh’s love of wild animals steered him towards the occupational field of biology. It included four years researching for a doctorate in endangered species conservation in Moscow.

“I wanted to understand how a 45-kilogram animal could bring down a horse. I’ve still never seen it happen; only the aftermath,” he says. “And I wanted to know how snow leopards could be categorized as one of the five Big Cats alongside tigers, lions, jaguars and leopards, when heavier and taller pumas or cheetahs weren’t.”