Sunrise over the ger camp in the Jargalant range
Autumn in western and central Mongolia is a bright palette of yellows, browns, oranges and cream, set in vast horizons and endless mountain ranges. Red deer begin their rut and as they exhale in the chilly mornings, they look like they are breathing fire. Ibex and Argali congregate in herds ready to face winter, while the marmots and smaller rodents are already in hibernation. Little owls glide silently over yellowed grasslands in search of prey.
Snow-covered peaks tower over our ger camp at the base of the Tsagan Shuvuut range.
I chose to travel to Mongolia in autumn for several reasons; the aim was to photograph snow leopards directly and also with camera traps. As the temperatures drop and the first snowfall sets in, animals slowly migrate to lower levels of mountains where they can still find food, making it easier to find and photograph them.
Tucked between the zoogeographic regions of Siberia and northern China and separated from Kazakhstan’s vast steppes by the Altai range in the west, Mongolia is home to a particularly rich diversity of northern hemisphere fauna, some of which can now only be found here. The combination of wild animal species in this country is remarkable: Przewalski’s horses, the Asiatic wild ass, wild Bactrian camels, the Mongolian saiga antelope, Black-tailed gazelles and Mongolian gazelles, as well as numerous deer species, Asiatic ibex, and Argali sheep form an impressive group of large herbivores distributed over distinct habitats. Corsac foxes and their larger cousins, the red foxes, wolverines, wolves, and black bears can be observed. Snow leopards, Pallas’s cats, Eurasian lynx, Eurasian wildcats, and possibly Chinese mountain cats are present in several areas of Mongolia. Among the smaller predator species are sables, martens, mink, weasels, and polecats, while the smallest herbivores and insectivores include spectacular species such as the Siberian jerboa and Siberian flying squirrel, as well as pikas, marmots, and various small rodents. Along with a spectacular birdlife, Mongolia is comparable to some of the biggest wildlife destinations in Africa, South America, and Asia.
Marmots are considered a culinary delicacy. Hunting them has a domino effect on their population and on other species. A local guide explained that female marmots have specialized glands which are used to keep the young warm during long, harsh winters. When a female marmot is killed for its meat, it leads to the death of her litter, typically made up of 4-6 young which are not able to withstand the winter alone. Pallas’s cats cannot dig their own burrows and often take shelter in abandoned marmot burrows and fox dens. Research has shown that over-hunting and disease have resulted in a 75% decline in the marmot population over a period of 12 years, affecting future marmot and populations of other species.
In 2005, John Nobel Wilford published an article in the New York Times based on a research project by the Wildlife Conservation Society and financed by the World Bank titled “In Mongolia, an extinction crisis looms” (https://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/06/science/in-mongolia-an-extinction-crisis-looms.html). My own experience led me to understand that wildlife in Mongolia is in direct competition with local people’s culture, traditional values and their simple struggle for survival. From the diminutive pika which are poisoned because their burrows cause injury to herders’ livestock and horses, marmots which are hunted for their meat and fat, corsac and red fox hunted for their pelts and for sport, ibex and other sheep and antelopes of similar size hunted for their horns and meat, to the elusive snow leopards which are illegally killed in retaliation for livestock depredation and for their pelts. Herding dogs which protect livestock and accompany nomads throughout the year, hunt and kill wildlife like marmots and Pallas’s cats. Herders prefer hunting wild animals for meat rather than kill their own livestock as these are their main source of income.
A two -year old Mongolian boy poses with two dogs which accompany the Cashmere goat herds protecting and managing them. Herding dogs have been observed chasing, injuring and killing Mongolian gazelle, saiga and argali as well as Pallas’s cats. In the Ikh nart Nature reserve, dogs were responsible for the deaths of 25 collared argali sheep while in Kazakhstan, herding dogs account for the death of over 10,000 saiga annually (Young J., et al. 2011).
While hunting and poaching drive serious declines in wildlife populations, the greatest threat comes from a most unlikely cause: Cashmere goats. Poverty is rife in Mongolia, particularly in rural areas. But people have found a solution to make quick money by selling the wool produced by Cashmere goats. During Mongolia’s communist years, livestock numbers per herder family were strictly regulated to prevent overgrazing and a central supply of fodder was available for herders during tough winters. After the fall of communism, herds have increased massively to over 60 million animals (2016 estimate) and continue growing. Where herders had ~30 goats and sheep, they now have several hundred heads of livestock, all of which need sufficient food, water and space.
Cashmere is Mongolia’s third most important export product. The country is one of the largest producers in the world, second only to China.
Protected area configurations respect Mongolian nomadic philosophy of being able to go where they want, leading to small core areas and vast buffer zones. Surprisingly, herders and their goats can be found within core areas where endangered species like the Mongolian saiga find themselves competing for resources with goats. Mongolian saiga have a general population trend that is decreasing but in 2017, they were dealt a blow; 54% of the population died as result of goat plague transmitted by domestic goat and sheep (http://wwf.panda.org/?296930/545-percent-of-the-Mongolian-Saiga-population-is-lost-due-to-disease-outbreak). Furthermore, male saigas are hunted for their horns which is used in traditional Chinese medicine.
Protected areas are vast with very few rangers to patrol them and control illegal hunting. Moreover, they are paid so little, that they themselves have herds of cashmere goats to make ends meet. All these threats are exacerbated by increasingly severe winters where the snow cover is very deep making it difficult for herbivores to find food and in other periods of the year, extended droughts make food scarce. In the 1990s, conservation groups encouraged the hunting of male saigas for their horns to replace rhinoceros’ horns on the traditional Chinese medicine market. It was a bid to save rhinoceros from being poached but not only did the rhinos continue to be hunted, the sex-ratio of saigas was severely impacted as only the male carry horns. Today, saigas continue to be hunted and their flight distance is often over 300m making it difficult for wildlife enthusiasts to truly appreciate this magnificent species.
Amidst this bleak picture is a veritable oasis of hope. The Khustain Nuruu National Park is a privately managed protected area and a beacon for wildlife protection and conservation in Mongolia. Originally created to reintroduce the Przewalski’s horses, which had gone extinct in the wild in the 1960s as a result of overgrazing, hunting and interbreeding with domestic horses, the protected area has become a haven for other wildlife. Herds of red deer, Mongolian gazelle and owls dot the grassy slopes alongside the horses in the protected area. In fact, I was told that Mongolian gazelle have been entering the boundaries of Khustain to escape hunters. However, corsac and red foxes remain elusive with a flight distance of over 300m as a result of sustained hunting for their pelts. A pack of six wolves were spotted from a distance, clearly avoiding humans.
Przewalski’s horses roam freely in the safety of the grasslands in Khustain Nuruu National Park.
Mongolia’s natural heritage with its unique species assemblage has the potential to attract wildlife enthusiasts from within Mongolia and around the world. Time is running out for this region which with the right actions and attention could become the Botswana of the northern hemisphere. Mongolians are fiercely proud of their cultural heritage. They must decide now whether to restore their unique natural heritage and safeguard it. Will future generations have the opportunity to see mighty herds of gazelles and saigas roaming the endless valleys, verdant in summer and golden in autumn?