Wildlife of the Mongolian Steppe
David Doyle travelled to the Mongolian desert to take part in the Earthwatch-nabCapital fellowship program to help scientists study threatened animals in central Asia.
- "You’re going where?" my friends would ask.
- "Mongolia, the northern part of the Gobi desert" I’d reply.
- "Why? To do what?"
- "To count the wild sheep, goats and other animals" I’d respond with a slight smile.
- "And nabCapital is actually paying for you to do this?"
- "Yep, pretty cool, huh!" I said with a growing smile.
This was the conversation I had many times in the months before I left Melbourne to be part of Earthwatch's Wildlife of the Mongolian Steppe project. Some people wondered why I would even want to do this. Others questioned why nabCapital would be paying for staff to do such activities, totally unrelated to banking. A few however, with a spark in their eye, knew exactly what motivated me (and perhaps the bank) and were keen to find out how they could get involved in something similar.
Travelling to Mongolia is not a holiday, it's an adventure. Just getting there requires several flights, visas and almost inevitable delays. But new experiences like this do not come everyday for a mid 40-year-old banker with three kids and a mortgage - so even the frustrations of travel were made easier by the excitement of the unknown.
I wanted a challenge, to go to someplace I had never been, nor was likely to go under my own steam, and do something I had never done – and this expedition fitted the bill. I didn't even know what a 'Steppe' was until I looked into this project. [Steppe is a grassland plain without trees, and in Mongolia it is the part of the country between the Gobi desert and the more lush grasslands of the north.]
Despite its long history, and having been responsible in the 13th century for the largest empire the world has ever known, Mongolia of the 21st century is a young democracy and the economy is relatively small and fragile compared to its larger neighbours. As such it is a relatively poor country, but only in economic terms. As the least densely populated country in the world, with few fences, the wildlife in Mongolia are still relatively unaffected by mankind.
Wildlife of the Mongolian Steppe is based in Ikh Nart nature reserve, 300km South East of the capital, Ulaan Baatar, and the research team comprises of specialists from Denver Zoo and various Mongolian Universities and Institutes. The research is diverse and ongoing. My volunteer team comprised of five individuals from three countries, ranging in age from 30 to 60 something, with different backgrounds and interests. This small team bonded well in a very short period of time and we have remained in contact since our adventure ended. We regard ourselves lucky that we got to work together with the research team, helping to add another small piece of the puzzle in understanding the conservation of the wildlife in this untamed country.
Camp consisted of five gers (also known as yurts), which are big round tents with floors and a door, and in the colder months they have a fire inside. The gers are the traditional home for the nomadic Mongolians and perhaps half the population still live in them.
When you first look at the arid and rocky terrain it would be easy to think that not much could live there. However, over the two weeks we all got the opportunity to discover the diverse range of animals, birds and plants that manage to make this environment their home - from the Argili sheep, Ibex goats and the speedy gazelle to the gerbil, jerboa, foxes, hedgehogs and the Lesser Kestrels and Cinereous Vultures.
My favourite experience was the capture and tagging of the Vultures – these birds are huge and obviously fairly smart as they were far from keen to step into the traps we put at their nests. After two full days in the hot desert sun, setting and resetting traps and waiting, we finally got our bird. She has a wing span over three metres and now has a GPS tracking unit to provide researchers with information on whereabouts for the next few years.
As volunteers in a country quite different from our own, we were also lucky enough to experience some of the local culture. We visited the ger of local nomadic herdsmen where we were given the traditional tea and were offered tobacco and snuff. We heard throat singing and traditional music and saw dancing and contortionists. We even danced at the "disco in the desert" where we were taught the "Mongolian two-step".
I have never read Catherine Ryan's "Pay It Forward" nor have I seen the movie. But I'm aware of, and really like the concept of, making the world a better place by doing something good for others and they in turn do something good for others too. For me the conservation experience was greatly enhanced by the fact that I was able to visit a new country, experience a new culture and meet some fantastic young people who are involved in working towards managing their own countries resources into the future. And I'm proud to say that I played and will continue to play a small part in that.
Learn more about Wildlife of the Mongolian Steppe and help scientists document the behaviour and ecology of threatened wild sheep to stem their population decline.