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Thursday, June 17, 2010

Saving the Ghost of the Mountain, written by Sy Montgomery and photographs by Nic Bishop. Houghton, T Allen. 2009. $22.50 ages 10 and up

"Tomorrow we will begin our search for signs of leopards - tracks, poop, and places the leopard has marked with urine and scratches to warn rival leopards away and attract possible mates in the winter breeding season. Like the leopards themselves, these signs aren't easy to find."

They are called the 'ghost of the mountain' because even those who live among them rarely see one. Their beautiful spotted coats conceal them, and thus protect them as well. As they make their way through the valleys of Mongolia, they make anyone wanting to study them work extremely hard. That luckily doesn't keep Tom McCarthy from walking among them and setting his sights on a brief glimpse, just once in a while.

Tom is the conservation director for the Snow Leopard Trust, which is based in Seattle. He has dedicated his life to studying and protecting these beautiful, elusive creatures for many years. Sy Montgomery, writer extraordinaire, and Nic Bishop, nature photographer beyond compare, join one of Tom's treks to Mongolia to see if they can 'spot' the ghost and create another wonderful book for us to share.

The work is hard...long, dusty mountain trails, cold and hot weather, interminable days of searching and hoping. They lay humane snares, collect scat samples and even set up cameras, meant to be tripped by the motion of their quarry. There is much to be learned without the satisfaction of actually spotting one of these wild and stunning cats.

Sy Montgomery's narrative is personal and up-to-the-minute as she wanders with Tom and his team in their search for clues and sightings. She is a storyteller and creates text that is easy to share as a readaloud in intermediate and middle grade classes. She tells us about Mongolia, the guides, the team and their journey with love and great inspiration drawn from their dedication to the trek. This is a ten year study and we are only 'getting the goods' on one small part of it, but we know from the story told how committed they all are to protecting some of the 3500 to 7000
snow leopards still living in the wild.

If you have previously seen any of Nic Bishop's amazing photography, you know how hard he works to get just the right shot for every single image that will be used in this book. He is so patient and professional in the work that he does, and this book only adds to the admiration I already feel for his amazing art.

Did they see a 'ghost'? No, they did not. But they share their story with enthusiasm and admiration for the people who work in the field, encouraged by the thirty-four scat samples that they find one day...and a snow leopard track. They are out there...if only they would come out in the open!

After twisting her ankle twice prior to this trip, Sy Montgomery had a real worry when climbing the many slopes of the Altai Mountains and she feared: 'that with one single slip on the wrong slope, I would suddenly be reduced to splatter on stone. I surely would have been if not for Nic's strength and patience, and the kindness and care of our colleagues on this trip, always willing to extend a hand.'

And Nic Bishop says: 'Of course I never expected to photograph a snow leopard in the wild. Some people have asked if I was disappointed not even to see a wild snow leopard. But in many ways I am happy not to see one. I love that some things in nature will always remain mysterious and unseen. Just knowing that they are out there is pleasure enough.'

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