Wildlife of the Mongolian SteppeMongolia is synonymous with the wild, evoking images of seemingly endless steppe wilderness, nomadic herders, Ghengis Khan and the Gobi Desert. Mongolia fosters some of the world's last large and relatively unchanged wilderness ecosystems. Consequently, strongholds of many globally rare species can be found in the country.
This vast, landlocked nation wedged between China and Siberia is sparsely populated, with one of the lowest human population densities on the planet. The population is expanding rapidly, however, putting pressure on natural resources. The challenges facing Mongolia's unique biodiversity are growing with industrialisation, poaching, increasing demand to exploit the nation's rich mineral resources and ever expanding herds of livestock.
The Mongolian steppe is one of the largest contiguous expanses of unaltered grassland in the world and has escaped large-scale conversion to agriculture, the fate of grasslands elsewhere. Although many of the animals that have adapted to the unique conditions of the steppe are globally threatened, they exist in relatively large populations in Mongolia. Arguably, a unique opportunity exists for Mongolia to undergo economic development while maintaining healthy, productive grasslands that support large populations of native flora and fauna.
Volunteers on the Earthwatch project Wildlife of the Mongolian Steppe are immersed in the dramatic wilderness of this unique ecosystem, conducting research that aims to shed light on the ecology of elusive and threatened species including the world's largest wild sheep, the argali (Ovis ammon), Siberian ibex (Capra sibrica), cinereous vulture (Aegypius monachus), lesser kestrel (Falco naumanni), Corsac fox (Vulpes corsac) and the Daurian hedgehog (Hemiechinus dauuricus). The ultimate goal of this project is that the information gleaned on each species will be used to develop long-term conservation management plans.
Earthwatch volunteers work alongside scientists Richard Reading (Director of Conservation Biology/Denver Zoological Foundation), James Murdoch (Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, Oxford University), Sukhiin Amgalanbaatar (Mongolian Academy of Sciences), Ganchimeg Wingard (Denver Zoological Foundation), and field coordinators Mary Jo Willis and John Azua (also of the Denver Zoological Foundation) in the Ikh Nart Nature Reserve in Dornogobi Aimag, on the northern edge of the Gobi Desert.
The project, which has been running since 2004 with Earthwatch support, is yielding a wealth of fascinating insights on the ecology of a range of species and, in some cases, results are already being put to use in developing management plans. Several scientific papers acknowledging the support of Earthwatch volunteers were published in 2007. The following features a selection of research highlights from this project:
The argali sheep (Ovis ammon) is the world's largest wild sheep and is threatened throughout its Mongolian range. The results of the project are creating an ever-improving picture of the ecology of this species in Ikh Nart.
An analysis of dietary overlap between argali sheep and domestic goats and sheep found there is substantial overlap in the diets of these species, which has serious management implications for the reserve. Furthermore, radio-tracking work carried out with Earthwatch volunteers has highlighted areas of the reserve used by argali sheep. The team now plans to identify the habitat characteristics of these areas that attract the sheep. This information will be used in future management of areas for this threatened species.
Siberian ibex (Capra sibirica) populations in Mongolia appear to be relatively stable, but little is known about their ecology as few ecological studies have been conducted outside of Russia. Twenty seven individuals were captured and radio-tagged during 2007. The information gained by tracking these individuals showed that ibex from different demographic groups (males vs. females and juveniles vs. adults) used remarkably similar home ranges. The team also found that ibex largely restricted their activities to areas with steep cliffs and rocky outcrops.
The project team successfully measured and tagged cinereous vulture chicks. Twenty six chicks were captured for final measurements before they fledged. Of these chicks, 25 were permanently identified with leg and wing bands. Important dispersal data for this species are being gathered as a result of tagging. There have been several reports of birds that were wing tagged in previous years, including five birds sighted in different parts of South Korea, one bird south of Beijing in China, and one bird in the Sakha Republic of Russia. These sightings confirm that birds from Mongolia move thousands of kilometres from their nest sites.
Earthwatch volunteers were involved in a study of Daurian hedgehog ranging behaviour and diet, the first ecological study of this species in the wild. Volunteers helped to capture, radio-tag and track the hedgehogs. They also helped to collect scats (faeces) to investigate the composition of the diet of this species. The results showed that the diet of this hedgehog comprises largely of insects, but in rare cases the remains of birds, reptiles and rodents were found in some scats. The home ranges of individuals studied were far larger than those of all other species of hedgehog worldwide.
Small carnivores and prey
Four small carnivores and their insect, reptilian, and small mammalian prey were the focus of a further study. Corsac foxes and Pallas' cats occupy mainly steppe biotopes, relying especially on areas covered in tall vegetation where prey density is high relative to other habitats. Corsacs also rely on marmot burrows (typically found in open shrub habitats) for shelter from daytime weather and refuge from predators. Red foxes and badgers, by comparison, occupy mainly rockier, semi-desert biotopes, but also range in steppe areas. Rocky areas tend to have lower prey density, but are hunted considerably less by herders relative to steppe areas. Red foxes, badgers, and Pallas' cats use steep-sided drainages as important links or corridors between habitats. The research team believes that drainages are key to the survival of these species and should therefore be considered as conservation priority areas.
Although Mongolian culture maintains a tradition of respect and care for nature which has been formalised in the country's constitution, capacity to conserve and manage the country's natural heritage is limited. Another aim of this Earthwatch project is to train Mongolian conservationists, increasing their capacity to manage natural resources. In 2007 the project supported and trained three Mongolian undergraduate students, four Mongolian graduate students, three researchers with the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, and one Mongolian researcher with a Mongolian non-governmental organisation. One of the Mongolian researchers at the academy is also pursuing a Ph.D. at the Mongolia National University.
The research team works actively with the soum (similar to a county) governor and other local officials to continually improve management of Ikh Nart Reserve. In 2006 the team created a ranger corps for the reserve, providing further training and equipment for the rangers in 2007. The team used the research results to draft a management plan for the reserve and has continued to develop environmental education programmes in the soum and throughout the region. Recently, plans were finalised to construct an ecotourism camp adjacent to Ikh Nart in 2008. It is anticipated that this initiative will generate revenue for the reserve; the team is currently seeking funding for the construction of a visitor centre.
Results from this project have contributed to national conservation policy, plans and databases, such as recent revisions of mammalian and bird species lists and range maps, and the production of two guidebooks. The project scientists contributed significantly to a revised Mongolian Red Data Book on threatened and endangered species, published in early 2007. The hope is that data gathered by this project will influence national level management, and to this end, the team is drafting manuscripts for publication in Mongolia and in international journals.
Despite the many efforts of the team and Earthwatch volunteers to date, knowledge of the ecology of the species studied by this project remains incomplete and there is still much to do. You can play your part by joining this project in 2008. Call the expedition recruitment team now on +44 (0)1865 318831 for more information.