Nomad’s land

Navigating through the open desert in a packed van en route to our snow leopard research station in Mongolia’s South Gobi, I looked at some homemade sausages we were transporting to the base camp. They were tied to the grips above the windows, and every time we went over a bump, they would swing back and forth leaving behind a greasy smile on the glass. Even though I was soaking in sweat and covered in dust, I felt so supremely content and couldn’t help but smile back as I wondered, How did I get here? 


The first time I handed someone my business card, all puffed up with ‘my first official job out of college’ pride, he looked at it and said, “Aw, that’s cute. Where did you have these made?”

“Uh, my employer gave them to me,” I said hesitantly, not quite understanding the question.

“Oh, so this is a real thing? Cool!”  he replied.  Apparently, one does not often see the words ‘snow leopard’ on a business card—complete with a logo of the cat itself.

If you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said a lot of things, but I certainly never thought I would be saving snow leopards. In fact, when my dad made a recent move from the mountains of Telluride, CO to the island shores of the Pacific Northwest, I was forced to go through four Rubbermaid tubs packed to the brim with high school memorabilia.  Amongst a few dusty and crumbling corsages and a deflated basketball signed by the girls who were on a youth team I coached my junior year (if I wasn’t afraid of having hoarding tendencies before I looked through those tubs, I am now), I found a copy of my school newspaper’s Senior Edition. In it, they asked each of us seniors the quintessential, “Where do you see yourself in ten years?” Next to my name it said, “I’ll be living in Manhattan, working for a major advertising agency and ordering a non-fat vanilla latte from a coffee cart.” Well, I did end up in the land of coffee, (although these days it’s quad-americanos and full-fat half-and-half, thank you very much) but I definitely strayed far from my corporate dreams.

marissa in sand

My “ah-ha” moment happened my sophomore year in college while researching the Three Gorges Dam that was being constructed on the Yangtze River in the Hubei province of China. During an interview, one of the lead scientists opposed to the project said that the dam would displace so much water that it would actually shift the Earth on its axis. The same amount of energy could be generated through damming smaller tributaries along the river, but the powers-that-be wanted to build the biggest and the best. This project also forced over a million farming families to leave everything they had been doing for generations and move into cities, where they were told to start fresh with very few, if any, resources. This sparked my passion for issues surrounding sustainability, so when I found the non-profit job posting for a Program Assistant at the Snow Leopard Trust, and saw that they conduct research projects and work with indigenous communities to protect this endangered species, I knew I had to apply, if for nothing else to be able to say, “I save snow leopards,” when asked what I do for a living at a dinner party.

marissa with research camera

Once people realize that the Snow Leopard Trust is indeed a real organization, most of the questions that follow are:  “Have you ever seen a snow leopard?”;  “Have you ever touched a snow leopard?”;  “Where do snow leopards live?”; followed by, “Do you get to travel?”

I have never seen a snow leopard in the wild, and although now having two small children, most of my travel is done domestically to raise awareness about our organization, in the summer of 2009 I had the incredible opportunity to venture to Mongolia, which is home to the second largest snow leopard population in the world, just behind China. The trip was broken up into two parts. The first half was spent in the western part of the country where we conducted a workshop for some of the herding communities we work with who use the wool of their domestic livestock to make handicrafts that we then help them sell as a way to generate extra income. The sales from these products help mitigate human/wildlife conflict by offsetting the depredation these communities are experiencing from snow leopard attacks on their livestock, so they don’t feel so threatened by this loss.

mongolian girl with dell

After the workshop, we took a flight back to the capital of Ulaanbaatar and from there flew to Dalanzadgad where we met up with our driver and proceeded to make our way to the research station in the southernmost part of the country. The thing about driving in this region of Mongolia is that there aren’t any roads or even signs, for that matter.  The drivers are just cruising through open, sandy terrain for miles upon miles, using landmarks only known by the locals to guide them. Not to mention, you could drive for days and not see another soul. In this day and age, where we feel like we have lost a limb if we forget our phones at home, it was quite freeing to be in one of the only places on Earth where you can truly be off the grid. There are certain places that I am convinced are intrinsically magical, and Mongolia, for me, is one of them. Steeped in culture, it feels like a hallowed ground of ancestral practices. At night, we would just look up at the stars and soak in the pure, thick silence that only comes from being in the heart of the Gobi, surrounded by mountains and desert and maybe even a snow leopard or two off in the distance.


It took us a little over twelve sweltering hours with a few pit stops before we finally pulled in to the base camp, consisting of three yurts and a motorcycle. We were greeted by the Camp Manager and his wife along with two Mongolian interns who had been assisting with some of the research projects throughout the spring and early summer. They offered us a cup of tea, which is traditionally made with either yak, camel, or mare’s milk and is more of a ‘savory tea’ as it’s usually salty and occasionally garnished with bits of meat.

mongolian girl

Over the next few days, we helped the researchers break down the camp as it was the end of the field season. We even got to hike up into the mountains and retrieve some of the remote cameras that had been strategically placed throughout the habitat.  These cameras have infrared motion sensors and are programmed to take a picture every half-second when something moves in front of them. Like human finger prints, no two snow leopards have the same spot patterns, so scientists can study photographs of wild snow leopards to help them determine how many individual cats are in any given area, based on the number of unique spot patterns.

yurt breakdown

After we collected the cameras, we returned to the camp and immediately put the memory cards into the laptop and waited in great anticipation as the photos downloaded. This was one of the first camera studies we had conducted, so nobody knew quite what to expect. The sun had set, so we were all packed in the dark yurt, huddled around this small laptop being powered by a generator. Everyone’s faces were illuminated by the screen and you could almost hear the collective heartbeat pounding as we started clicking through the photos. The excitement waned as we scrolled through about 50 pictures of grass blowing in the wind, then a Mongolian hare, hare, hare, domestic goat, goat leg, goat nose, hare ear, hare nose, another hare (apparently Mongolian hares are the Kardashians of the South Gobi) and then…SNOW LEOPARD. All of the air went out of the yurt.  Everyone was jumping up and down, cheering, hugging, screaming, exchanging high-fives, and more than a few happy tears were shed.

mariss with pursee daughter

That’s the thing about spending your life protecting something you may never see. You have to go on pure faith. Faith that all of your hard work and dedication is making a difference—that it all means something. Then, with a single image, that faith is validated. Your reset button is hit, and you can continue with more vigor than ever before. When we looked closer at the time stamp, we noticed that the snow leopard had been photographed a mere two days prior to when we collected the camera. We had actually wandered in the snow leopard’s footsteps. That was probably as close to a wild snow leopard that I would ever get, and in that moment, it was enough.

mongolian dog

The next day, riding the high of seeing that glimpse of the elusive cat, we went to visit more communities that we work with. In the Gobi they raise camels, so most of their items are crafted out of camel wool. Since these families are primarily nomadic herders, and move a few times a year depending on the weather, they don’t have a physical address, so it’s not like you can just call them up and say you’ll be there by 10 a.m. In fact, first, you have to find them  The Camp Manager’s wife knew almost all of the families in the region and where they tend to go and when, so she helped point us in the right direction.

looking at map in yurt

After that, it was a matter of tracking. We would dig a bit in trash pits to see how long it had been since they were last there, and with the help of our incredible driver, who also knew the area like the back of his hand, we intricately traced our way through the mountains and the desert, until we saw a speck of white in the distance. As we got closer, that speck of white turned into the yurt we were searching for, and our ambush was a welcomed one. The people of Mongolia are some of the most gracious, warm, and hospitable people I have ever met. With the help of a translator, we asked them how the handicraft program was going as we nibbled on aaruul—a traditional snack made of curdled milk that had been thoroughly dried and hardened in the sun (it’s an acquired taste, for sure). One of the women excitedly spun some of her camel wool for us and proudly showed us a few of the products she has recently made. As our visit neared its end, the family pulled out a watermelon from behind a table in the back of their yurt. It had probably been purchased in a trade market from China, and it was a delicacy. One that they weren’t necessarily saving for us, as they didn’t even know we were coming. Regardless, they happily cut it and passed it around, wanting us to eat first. It was the ultimate sweet offering. So, there we were. Sitting and laughing as we ate this juicy treat. Separated by culture and language but united in our desire to make a difference and protect, as the locals call it, the ghost of the mountain.


The decisions that we make sometimes lead us down a path that we cannot fully comprehend until months, sometimes even years, later—if ever. The founder of the Snow Leopard Trust, Helen Freeman, started the organization in 1981 sparked by a passion from working with the cats at the zoo and her desire to do something to protect them in the wild. I’m sure she didn’t know at the time that it would turn into the oldest and largest snow leopard conservation organization in the world. At one of the first events I attended in Seattle to sell the handicrafts, a woman in her late 70s approached me with tears streaming down her face. She told me that she was Helen’s college roommate and as she looked at the display, she said with a shaky voice, “This is her legacy. What an extraordinary example of how one woman can change the world.”

snow leopard sign

When I accepted the job at the Snow Leopard Trust, I thought I would be there for a couple of years and was looking forward to getting some experience in the non-profit sector. And now, over a decade later, I’m still here. Somewhat mourning the paychecks my Manhattan-based advertising job would have yielded, but keeping the faith that because of this path I have chosen, and everyone who is a part of it, snow leopards will continue to make footprints in the mountains of Central Asia for generations to come.

{Shameless Plug} If you would like to learn more about the Snow Leopard Trust’s programs, please visit:

Marissa headshot

MARISSA B. NIRANJAN is a quarter Italian, only child, married to an Indian who happens to be an identical twin. When she’s not chasing after their tiny humans, she’s saving snow leopards, using too many exclamation points or warming up her coffee in the microwave.  She loves her kids, but she really misses hot coffee!!


  1. Ah sweet baby girl, a mother’s pride doesn’t begin to describe my emotions! So proud… Also, remember, there are an additional 6 (or more) tubs of memorabilia in Colorado awaiting you…


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