Let me take you on my journey. Think Gengis Khan, nomadic herders, signing Mongolian horsemen, bumpy rides in Russian Kombi vans, nights full of stars and clear blue days combined with the adrenalin rush of catching your first Argali.
Earthwatch Expedition: Wildlife of the Mongolian Steppe - Pippa Pittaway.
The Earthwatch program was something I had wanted to do for a long time and I couldn’t quite believe we could access these opportunities through work. Wildlife of the Mongolian Steppe has been one of the very best experiences of my life.
Ulanbaatar is the crazy but fun capital of the new Mongolia People’s Republic. Conquered by Chinese warlords since the Qing dynasty, and having suffered communist Russian and anti-religious purges over the centuries, Ulaanbaatar is now fast moving forward on the world stage. Ulaanbaatar is fighting off its third world image but seems to be a little confused about its identity – there is a big Russian influence everywhere as well as a strong traditional Mongolian presence. It feels like a mixed bag and sometimes I wonder if I am in Russia or Mongolia. Young teenagers dressed in the latest fashions swank down the main street on their mobile phones. Following them are grandparents in traditional Mongolian dress. It is not uncommon to see a Hummer next to a horse in the main street. There is a feeling of new money in the air and judging by some of the cars there must be some very wealthy people around. A shiny new BMW X5 flys into the traffic jam at the train station right in the middle of all the other old dented car and looks bizarre.
My Earthwatch Experience: Heading to Ikh Nart Nature Reserve
After a welcome dinner at a local Chinese restaurant, team briefing and a meet and greet of the other volunteers we headed off the next day for a 6 hour train ride to Shiva Gobe. The train stopped at many little train stations along the way and there were many interesting things to see. The landscape started to change as we left Ulaanbaatar. We could see the poorer areas on the outskirts of the city, mangy dogs running about, little kids playing in piles of rubbish and then it transformed into beautiful brown and green hills, sparse land stretching for miles, the odd eagle soaring high in the sky, and many skeletons of dead horses who didn’t survive the harsh winter.
Home for the next 12 days is a Mongolian Ger, a round camp tent that is warm and cosy and my camp bed provides the best sleep I have had in years. There are 6 Gers at camp, one for the men to sleep in, one for the women, a tent for the scientists, one for eating and meeting in, the cooks tent/ kitchen and one for the other Mongolians and students to sleep in.
We collect water from a natural spring for our cooking, cleaning, washing and drinking but as we discovered this drinking hole was often shared with herds of local goats, cows, Argali and Ibex! A couple of equipment containers are left there all year round and are loaded with supplies. Our shower was a sun shower bag that had to be filled every day and left in the sun in the hope that when you came back from a long day it was actually warm. The bag was hoisted up by a pulley system which as I discovered takes a fair amount of strength to get it to an appropriate showering level.
The day-to-day running of the camp was managed by our fabulous camp manager and assistant camp manager who move with the camp when it changes location in the cooler months.
We have a camp debrief led by Rich Reading, the lead scientist on this project. Rich is from Denver Zoo and set up this Research Project in Mongolia about 20 years ago and now has about 25 different research projects around the world on the go at any one time. He is an amazingly intelligent, articulate person and his enthusiasm is contagious.
Karin, our project organiser is from Alaska and is a massive adventurer, enthusiastic and ready for action. She provides great explanations and very clear instructions which we all really appreciate.
Diana our vet is amazingly patient, a true teacher, never faulting on our endless silly novice questions and always ready to help and give advice. The camp staff are enthusiastic and the scientists from the Mongolian University are generous and kind.
You can tell that everyone loves their jobs and loves being here so we all feel very welcome and happy that we are contributing. The research staff, mainly Mongolian students are from the university in Ulaanbaatar. The Mongolians smile constantly and are always helpful.
Local park rangers help patrol the park from illegal poachers and Ninja miners and assist with the conservation work. The Mongolians feel very strongly about protecting the wildlife and you get a strong sense of their love and passion for nature. Their enthusiasm is contagious and we learn a lot from them about the nomadic herder’s link to the land formed over centuries of living and surviving in such harsh conditions. The land is a provider and must be protected and nurtured at all times. Our work will help them develop policies for effective ongoing conservation management. We help them practice their English and share stories about our own countries, wildlife and people. I took over some books on Australian wildlife and postcards and they were very well received.
So not only do you learn about animals and ecosystems but you learn about people and what motivates them to become good leaders. Some stand out from the pack through their great leadership, team efforts, great attitude and zest for life. I think Peter and Joss are true leaders in every sense of the word. They lead by example. But everyone adds something in their own way and it was a team effort. Overall we had a great group of people from all different backgrounds who came together to share a common purpose – help save the planet and have an adventure at the same time.
Our first couple of days at camp involved more detailed briefings, and equipment training. We learnt how to use GPS tracking devices, the art of attaching radio collars, how to track animals, how to attach ear tags, how to use walkie talkies, and had a general rundown of the Veterinary aspects of the project such as using thermometers to check the health of the animals.
Our main project was the tracking and capturing of Argali sheep and Ibex goats but this was delayed due to poor weather conditions and the fact that we needed to arrange the Mongolian horsemen to assist with the capture. So instead we started with the capture of small mammals, tracking and collecting fox poop and counting lizards. All projects assist in developing long-term conservation management plans.
Research Project 1 - Small Mammal Capture
We assisted on a project studying the population growth and health of small mammals in the nature reserve. We were led by a Mongolian student whose love of these gorgeous little creatures including dwarf hamsters, jerboas and gerbils was inspiring. We helped by setting up over 100 traps in a grid. There are two trap doors at either end and one is left open with a spring locking device to close the door once the animal is inside. The traps are opened at night and set with food. The following morning we check the traps for animals and they are tagged, measured, weighed and then released.
The data is used to check the population growth of these animals in different areas of the Steppe. In most cases we only found 3 or 4 animals but this is apparently a good sign. The first day of checking the traps was going fairly quietly until Claudia opened a trap to find her first pair of dwarf hamster eyes glaring back at her and screamed with fright. When these little animals get scared there defence mechanism is to start spitting out food from their little mouths like spit balls. Their mouths and bellies are usually stuffed full of millet so they have a lot of ammunition. Traps were packed up and reset in different areas so we covered a lot of rocky mountainous areas across the Steppe.
Research Project 2 - Lizards and Corsac fox
In an ecosystem where everything is interrelated, a good marmot population can lead to an increase in the fox population. We volunteered to find fox poop. Marker tags were set up in a large circle and the area divided into 4 equal parts in which we walked back and forth in our quarter scanning the ground for fox poop. Sadly I think I found more interesting rocks than fox poop. From a geologist’s point of view Mongolia is a haven for rocks. There are interesting rocks everywhere and I found my pockets getting heavy every day. Nothing can be removed from the park as it is a protected nature reserve but it was fun to bring them back to camp to talk about. The other important part of this project involved counting lizards. It became quite competitive getting back to the centre of the circle and saying how many lizards we had each seen. Of course the ever observant Peter always had the most. I discovered everything we did was fun and interesting in different ways. It was actually really interesting to study the ground and the rocks, marmot holes and all the small bugs and things that make their home in the Steppe from a whole different perspective.
In addition to this we also collected goat, Argali and Ibex poop to test for parasites. We gather fresh poop samples which then had to be carefully measured out and pulped in a small cup and then placed in a test tube and then onto a slide to be analysed under a microscope for parasites. Most animals were healthy and only some minor common parasites found in the goat poop. This more scientific part of the project was great fun and very rewarding and it was great to have been involved in all different stages of these research projects.
Research Project 3 – Argali sheep and Siberian Ibex
Mongolia has some of the most mountainous and beautiful terrain and I am now proud to say that I think I have climbed over every single rock in Mongolia - twice! We went out in small teams armed with an antenna and tracking device. Each animal that has been collared in the past has a unique name and number and our job was to pick up the signals from these collars and track these animals. Not an easy task and one that involved hiking (and sometimes running) for 6 or 7 hours. These animals remain well hidden and can move fast but it is such an adrenalin rush and an awesome sight when you do see a small herd of them – they are so majestic.
Setting up the drive nets
Once the weather was clear and the Mongolian horsemen had been rounded up we drove to the location to set up the drive nets. A deep valley was selected as it was felt that this would help funnel the animals into the nets. Two rows of nets are set up and held in place with loosely held stakes to ensure they easily fall over when the animals run into them.
The first day the nets were set up and left overnight whilst we went back to camp. Much discussion took place as the nets had been set up right near a huge vulture nest with a young vulture in it. The next day it was decided to move the nets to another location so as not to scare the vulture. Baby vultures often break their wings when learning to fly as they fall out of the nest and we did not want to increase the risk of this happening. Once the nets were all set up again we all moved into position along the edges of the nets. We remained well hidden behind a small rock or bush. We were kept up to date on our walkie talkies as to how far away animals were and to remain hidden and on standby.
A massive amount of work goes into these captures. Suddenly after being told to remain still and well hidden we are told “the Argali are coming” and with much anticipation “go, go, go” which means flying up from behind your rock or bush and screaming and hollering at the top of your lungs to scare the animals into the centre of the nets and ensure they don’t try and escape on the sides. A mad sprint to the centre of the net, pick up the 50kg vet bag and run as fast as you can to where the Mongolians are untangling the animal.
Each volunteer has a different job to do from data collection (measuring hoof size, tail length), adding ear tags and radio collars, photography or using a thermometer to check body temperature. Bottles of water are continuously poured over the animals to keep them cool and a hood is placed over their eyes so they don’t get too scared by seeing what is going on. A bunch of Mongolians sit on the animal to ensure it doesn’t get away and we all try and keep calm and focused on our jobs. The animal is weighed, the hood taken of and released. It is all over in about 15mins and I am hoping that Joss and I have taken down the right measurements. It is very hard to think clearly when everyone is frantically yelling out measurements and you have to be calm and double check “did you say 26 or 46cm?” In one instance we nearly ended up with a 6 foot tail and one leg a lot shorter than the other.
But what an adrenalin rush when it all starts..I can’t believe I am really doing this.....but no time to think as we are all madly doing what we have to do. I am so proud to be a volunteer and so proud of all those around me. What a day.....we go home tired and covered in dust but exhilarated......all pumped and ready to do it all again tomorrow.
I have many happy experiences from my time in Mongolia and most of all I am proud that I helped contribute to such a worthwhile expedition. Such happy times and so many great memories. From singing around the camp fire to eating boiled goat and milk tea, nearly stepping on an Asian viper and visiting a local nomadic family. I especially loved driving around in a Russian Kombi van with all of us crammed in and all the Mongolians singing pop rock love songs.
The Earthwatch program opened my eyes to new opportunities. I came back revitalised and with a better understanding of what drives me, my values and what is important. The Mongolian people taught me so much and I will use these new skills in the workplace. I have really enjoyed sharing this amazing experience with my friends, family and colleagues. I now have a much clearer understanding and awareness of the need to make decisions to create more sustainable outcomes.
Pippa Pittaway participated on Wildlife of the Mongolian Steppe in Sep 2010.