Observations rom a Mongolian Ger
Updated: Aug 4, 2019
I choose to visit Mongolia in autumn for several reasons; the aim was to photograph snow leopards directly and with the use of camera traps. As the temperature drops and the first snowfall sets in, herbivores slowly migrate to lower levels of the mountain ranges that are their home. Here they can still find food. Inevitably, the snow leopards follow them. It should be easier to observe and photograph these magnificent cats in autumn and late winter. Moreover, as the main tourism season in Mongolia is summer it should be less likely to have camera traps disturbed by other travellers.
Noah’s Ark of the North
Mongolia is truly unique in many ways. Tucked between the zoogeographic regions of Siberia and northern China and separated from Kazakhstan’s vast steppes by the Altai range in the west, the country 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 Mongolia 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 various deer species, Asiatic ibex, and Argali sheep form an impressive group of large herbivores distributed over varied 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. 12 bat species are native to Mongolia, and there is an impressive seasonal diversity in bird life.
Regarding its biodiversity, Mongolia is on eye-level with some of the most spectacular wildlife travel destinations in Africa, South America, and Asia. None of its neighbouring countries combine the particular diversity in habitats and landscapes found in Mongolia. This diversity, and the distinct advantage of a very low human population density, provides Mongolia the potential to be a Noah’s Ark of the north-eastern hemisphere. In other words: Mongolia could be one of the worlds prime wildlife travel destinations. Wildlife and nature enthusiasts who have seen the gardens of Eden that are the Okavango Delta and the southern African river systems in Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia, who have observed the endless congregations of ungulates in the East-African plains, and the Nile floodplains, who searched for jaguars in the Brazilian Pantanal, tracked pumas in Patagonia, followed orangutans in Borneo’s primary rainforests, and tigers in the Indian jungles, who immersed themselves in Australia’s wilderness, and endured rough seas and icy weather to find Antarctic wildlife, and polar bears far up north: they would ecstatically plan their expeditions to follow the footsteps of the great Khans, in search of Mongolia’s wild treasures. –
However, for now at least this must remain a dream.
Paradise under unlikely siege
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”. My own experience led me to understand just how 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 can 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 often simply for sport, ibex, wild sheep, antelopes and gazelles of similar size hunted for their horns and meat, to the elusive snow leopards and wolfs which are killed in retaliation for livestock depredation and for their pelts. Herding dogs protecting livestock accompany nomads throughout the year. Due to indifference and neglect, most of these dogs are allowed to hunt and kill wildlife like marmots and Pallas’s cats.
While hunting and poaching drive serious declines in wildlife populations, the greatest threat comes from a most unlikely cause: Cashmere goats. Today still, rural Mongolia is very poor, and people have found one solution to make quick money by selling the hair of 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 elimination of communism, herds have increased massively – I would even say out of control – to over 60 million animals (2016 estimate) and continue growing. Where herders had 20 or 30 goats years ago, they now have 300 and more animals all of which need sufficient food, water and space. Thus, the low human population numbers are negatively compensated by massively inflated livestock numbers. Cashmere is Mongolia’s third most important export product. The country is one of the largest producers in the world, second only to China, albeit with a focus on raw cashmere, while only few mills create knitted and woven products.
Deeply rooted in the history of nomadic culture Mongolia does not support the concept of private land ownership beyond small plots for people to erect their ger or build a house. The seemingly endless land is free and open for nomadic families to move through. It belongs to everyone, not to any one in particular. At first glance this sounds like an ideal ground for equality and opportunity for all. Sadly, this is not the case. Absence of any sense of ownership seems to go hand in hand with absence for individual responsibility. People don’t care about what they don’t know, and they equally won’t protect what is not theirs to look after. Beyond immediate needs, there is almost no preservation of these vast lands for coming generations.
Protected area configurations allow nomads nomadic to take their livestock where they want, resulting in strictly protected areas, national parks, and nature reserves with small core areas and vast buffer zones. Herders and their goats, sheep, and cows are often found within core areas where endangered species like Mongolian saiga, Goitered and black-tailed gazelles, but also ibex and Argali sheep find themselves competing for resources with livestock. Driven by a continued increase in livestock numbers, Mongolian saiga have seen a general population decrease but in 2017, they were dealt a blow; 54% of the population died as result of goat plague transmitted by domestic goat and sheep. Furthermore, male saigas are hunted for their horns which is used in traditional Chinese medicine. 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.
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.
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. Herders prefer hunting wild animals for meat rather than kill their own livestock as these are their main source of income. Hunting marmots which is considered a delicacy has a domino effect on the population and on other species. A local guide explained that female marmots have specialised 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 the over-hunting and disease have resulted in a 75% decline in the marmot population over a period of 12 years, affecting the future of marmot populations and other species such as Pallas’s cat.
Beacon of hope
Amidst this bleak picture is a veritable oasis of hope. The Khustain Nuruu National Park is a privately managed protected area where wild animals are the priority. 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 horses dot the grassy slopes in the protected area. While Argali and wolfs stick to higher grounds, Corsac foxes, marmots, and a wide variety of rodents can be observed in the open plains. Owls and other raptors hunt for their smaller prey. The Mongolian gazelle have actually been into Khustain to escape hunters elsewhere. Corsac and red foxes as well as wolfs remain elusive with a flight distance of over 300m as a result of sustained hunting.
Time to act
Mongolia’s natural heritage with its unique species assemblage has the potential to attract wildlife enthusiasts from around the world. This Kalahari, or Serengeti of the North with its snow leopards, Pallas’s cats, saiga antelopes, Mongolian gazelles, Bactrian camels, the Mongolian wild ass, deer, wolfs, and its spectacular birdlife has so much to offer for locals and international visitors alike. Today, it is in the hands of all Mongolians to safeguard their unique natural heritage, and it is high time to act! If Mongolia’s wilderness can be restored to its former glory, it will beyond the shadow of a doubt generate a substantial and at the same time sustainable income in many regions.
Not only future generations of Mongolians, but all wildlife and wilderness enthusiasts, and adventurers from around the world will have the opportunity to follow the tracks of wild horses, gazelles, saigas and camels roaming the vast grasslands, and to look for argali, ibex, snow leopards, lynxes and wolfs moving through the peaks and valleys of the Altai and the Gobi.
June 2019 - Patrick Meier, Malini Pittet