Friday, June 7, 2019

Eco-Hero: Bayarjargal Agvaantseren and the Snow Leopards of Mongolia

A former language teacher saves thousands of snow leopards from the dangers of habitat destruction from mining companies.

Snow Leopard in Mongolia

The snow leopard (Panthera uncia) is a large cat native to the mountain ranges of central and south Asia. It is threatened with extinction; less than several thousand remain on the planet.

“When I learned about this cat it seemed to me quite amazing. You know, so secretive and beautiful,” says Bayarjargal Agvaantseren. “And I also learned that these animals faced so many threats.”

Bayarjargal has devoted her life to protecting up to 1,000 rare snow leopards living in southern Mongolia. The country’s Tost Mountain range is home to some of them. “Tost is unique in the way that it has really good prey species,” says Bayarjargal.

The local herders used to kill the big cats to protect their livestock. So, Bayarjargal started a clever initiative to win their support. She started a livestock insurance program. “The local herders agreed to insure their livestock; with one goat being, say, 50 cents, she created a fund for them. Once local people’s loss was compensated, their attitude changed. They didn’t see the snow leopard as an enemy any more.”

Mongolian sheep herding

But Mongolias’ booming mining industry presented a new threat. Thirty-seven mining licenses had been issued within the mountains in a critical area of the snow habitat in the South Gobi Desert. “When we found out about the emerging threat of mining, we just had to inform local people that their land is being given away to mining licences, and the snow leopard’s habitat is going to be disrupted. And because we had created all this trust with the local people, they immediately got on board.” Bayarjargal started a campaign in 2009 to create a huge nature reserve to prevent mining activities and protect the snow leopard’s habitat.

“It was challenging,” Bayarjargal  said.

“The first thing you would hear was: ‘the Mongolian economy is in a difficult condition, who cares about the snow leopard.’ But with local people’s support, pressure mounted on politicians. It was just a time that everything came together. It was a time when politicians were all very active, preparing for the next election. So, for those politicians, it was probably very important to support something to attract their voters.”

Mining in Mongolia

In 2016 the Tost Tosonbumba Nature Reserve was approved and two years later all mining licences there were cancelled. The Tost Tosonbumba Nature Reserve is a 1.8 million acre federally protected area in Mongolia that connects two other protected areas for a combined 20 million acres in the south Gobi, making one of the largest snow leopard habitats in the world. It is Mongolia’s only park specifically dedicated for snow leopard conservation.

Creating a nature reserve based on an apex predator is particularly logical, given that the apex predator represents (and embraces) an entire ecosystem. They are, if you like, a logical representative—or sentinel—for that ecosystem and all the habitat features that support it, including all prey species and what they feed upon. You save the leopard and you save everything else that lives with it. In Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List, Itzhak Stern quotes a wise saying from the Talmud, “Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire…”

“When we heard the news that Tost Mountain was declared as a nature reserve, I was overwhelmed with happiness. I was thinking, OK we reached our goal. But soon after I realized that it was just the start. I would like to develop this national park system that can be run by local people."

In recognition for her conservational career, Agvaantseren was recently awarded the 2019 Goldman Environmental Prize for Asia, making her one of six people to win the Goldman Environmental Prize.

Bayarjargal Agvaantseren is an eco-hero.

Snow Leopard

Extinction Crisis:  Our planet is now in the midst of its sixth mass extinction of plants and animals — the sixth wave of extinctions in the past half-billion years. We're currently experiencing the worst spate of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Although extinction is a natural phenomenon, it occurs at a natural “background” rate of about one to five species per year. Scientists estimate we're now losing species at up to 1,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day. as many as 30 to 50 percent of all species possibly heading toward extinction by mid-century
The majority of wildlife extinctions occurring right now—animals, plants, fungi, insects—is a result of habitat destruction. See this site for more on the red list status of the snow leopard.


Centre for Biological Diversity. 2019. “The Extinction Crisis.” Centre for Biological Diversity, Online:
Chivian, E. and A. Bernstein (eds.)  2008. Sustaining life: How human health depends on biodiversity. Center for Health and the Global Environment. Oxford University Press, New York. 
Ibid. and Thomas, C. D., A. Cameron, R. E. Green, M. Bakkenes, L. J. Beaumont, Y. C. Collingham, B. F. N. Erasmus, M. Ferreira de Siqueira, A. Grainger, Lee Hannah, L. Hughes, Brian Huntley, A. S. van Jaarsveld, G. F. Midgley, L. Miles, M. A. Ortega-Huerta, A. Townsend Peterson, O. L. Phillips, and S. E. Williams. 2004. Extinction risk from climate change. Nature 427: 145–148. 
Endangered Species. 2009. In Encyclopædia Britannica. Available in Encyclopedia Britannica Online at

This article is part of a series of posts that will feature an eco-hero in the singular altruistic act of helping this planet cope and heal from the self-serving, unkind and cruel actions of a humanity pre-occupied with itself. I hope you will join me in celebrating the selfless actions of these individuals on behalf of Gaia.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit for the latest on her books. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood. Nina's latest novel "A Diary in the Age of Water" will be released by Inanna Publications in 2020.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

The First Ecologist Predicted Climate Change in 1807

In 1799, thirty-year old Prussian explorer / naturalist and polymath Alexander von Humboldt travelled to South America where he formulated accurate concepts of ecology and climate interaction through comparative and holistic observation.

Humboldt was the first ecologist.

Humboldt had practiced the science of ecology for fifty years by the time German scientist Ernst Haeckel created a name for it (ökologie) in 1869. Humboldt made his scientific observations with the eyes that polymath and poet Goethe had given him. He embraced Schelling’s naturphilosophie, which espoused an organic and dynamic worldview as an alternative to the atomist and mechanist outlook that prevailed at the time. During that time, Enlightenment thinkers and scientists based their observations on the idea of an unchanging Nature that functioned like a machine; Humboldt argued that Nature’s one constant was change.

Heart of the Andes (by Frederic Edwin Church)

 During his journey through South America, Humboldt focused less on discovery and more on connection. Connection, relationship and consequence; these are the tenets of ecology. With the eyes of an ecologist, Humboldt formulated a new vision of nature that he depicted in his Naturgemälde—a “painting of nature” that implied a sense of unity or wholeness.

Humboldt’s 1807 Essay on the Geography of Plants, which he dedicated to his friend Goethe, promoted an entirely different perspective of nature; something none of his contemporaries saw, imagined or grasped. Humboldt wrote, “Nature is a living whole,” that interacts like a single organism with certain keystone species that are essential for that interconnected web to flourish. This maverick notion would later re-emerge over a century later as the Gaia Hypothesis of Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock.

Diverging from the current focus on static classification and taxonomy, Humboldt grouped plants into zones and regions, based on climate and geography. He had invented what would a century later be known as a biogeoclimatic zone—a region with a relatively uniform macroclimate and characterized by specific ecological properties such as energy flow, vegetation communities, and soils.

Humboldt saw nature as a living organism, animated by dynamic forces.

True to his holistic vision, Humboldt invented global temperature isopleths—still used today. It is no surprise that the world’s first ecologist would also predict humanity’s devastating effect on global climate. Only a scientist who integrated the greater relationships of natural forces could predict the impacts of a growing humanity on them. Humboldt did this by observing ecosystem loss and impacts on micro-climate and extrapolating to global proportions.

Humboldt was more than the world’s first ecologist; he was also the world’s first planetologist.

Deforestation & Climate Change

With an ecologist’s perspective, Humboldt astutely observed connections between human’s interference—particularly deforestation, over-cultivation, and industrialization—on ecological integrity.

Sugar plantation in South America

During his excursion in the late 1700s from Caracas to the Aragua Valley, Humboldt observed dry soils and lower crop yields resulting from deforestation and monoculture. Where the trees had been felled, heavy rains had washed away the soil. This was “all connected,” Humboldt concluded. With the forests no longer there to shade and anchor the soil or keep in the moisture, inevitable flash floods and washouts occurred.

In 1807, after witnessing the devastation in the valley of Aragua at Lake Valencia in South America, 38-year old Humboldt formulated his notion of human-induced climate change:

When forests are destroyed, as they are everywhere in America by the European planters, with an imprudent precipitation, the springs are entirely dried up, or become less abundant. The beds of the rivers, remaining dry during a part of the year, are converted into torrents, whenever great rains fall on the heights. [As] the sward and moss disappear with the brush-wood from the sides of the mountain, the waters falling in rain are no longer impeded in their course: and instead of slowly augmenting the level of the rivers by progressive filtrations, they furrow during heavy showers the sides of the hills, bear down the loosened soil, and from those sudden inundations, that devastate the country.

His excursions through Siberia twenty years later cemented his observations. In 1831 Humboldt listed the three ways in which human activities were already affecting climate: 1) deforestation; 2) ruthless irrigation; and 3) the “great masses of steam and gas” produced in the industrial centres. No one but Humboldt had looked at the relationship between humankind and nature like this before, observes his biographer Andrea Wulf in her book The Invention of Nature. This was because, throughout his scientific career, Humboldt searched for the “connections which linked all phenomena and all the forces of nature.”

The great irony is that for over two centuries after Humboldt’s observations in 1807, we are still learning this ecological lesson. Water and soil engineers, hydrologists, farmers, loggers, and politicians still need to acknowledge the consequences of these three activities on ecosystems and on macro- and global climate.

Humboldt astutely placed the burden of responsibility on the exploitive avarice of colonialists. He questioned their choices in exploiting the environment and their lack of sustainable practices. In Aragua, Humboldt witnessed how maize and other edible crops had been replaced with indigo, which “impoverishes the soil”—exploiting the soil like a mine and permanently robbing it of its goodness. In Mexico he saw the effects of deforestation in mine smelting. In Cuba, Humboldt witnessed the stripping of forests for sugar plantations—cash crops replacing “those vegetables which supply nourishment”—and criticized the unsustainable use of monocultures and high-yield or forced-yield cash crops.

With sharp prescience, Humboldt predicted today’s pesticide-doused monocrops of giant biotech corporations like Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, and Dupont, who have created a mafia-style monopoly on food production in the world.

Humboldt noted the devastating effects of deforestation, intense husbandry, and mining in the northern regions of Russia. He astutely predicted today’s devastating floods through the ignorant draining of swamps and lakes for fields and pastures. He witnessed and correctly predicted the consequences that we currently see in many parts of the world resulting from water removal and diversion, draining of wetlands, and removal of vegetation. An example here in Canada is Manitoba’s Red River, which constantly poses hardships through flooding farmland and urban Winnipeg as a result of wetland removal and diversion.

Why have we forgotten the lessons of Humboldt? Is it political will? Corporate short-term greed? The neoliberal model of Capitalism? Or is it simply that we have forgotten Nature: her importance and role in our own survival?

Ecology is the study of relationships and change. As a scientific discipline, ecology looks at how components of an environment (animate and inanimate) relate through a wide range of consequence, from species adaptations and ecological succession to climate change and evolution.

Unsustainable exploitation is the act of using something so thoroughly that it can no longer be used again. This is akin to a parasite or parasitoid that eventually kills its host. Examples that come to mind are monocrops and single-use plastics. There are many others.


Lovelock JE. 1972. “Gaia as seen through the atmosphere”. Atmos Environ 6(8):579–580. doi:10.1016/0004-6981(72)90076-5

Von Humboldt, Alexander and Aime Bonpland. 1807 (2013). “Essay on the Geography of Plants.” University of Chicago Press. Chicago. 296pp.

Wulf, Andrea. 2015. “The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World.” Vintage Books, New York. 552pp.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit for the latest on her books. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood. Nina's latest novel "A Diary in the Age of Water" will be released by Inanna Publications in 2020.