Rich threads from afar
Monday 3 August. Although I have been in Mongolia for three days, the real adventure began today. We got off the slow train at Shivee Gobi, having left Ulaan Baatar more than seven hours earlier. Hours flew by as I got to know the other volunteers, and the team members who travelled with us. We also got some good briefings. Two chunky 4x4s await us. I am surprised by the dramatic storm clouds.
Tuesday 4 August
Well, the time speeds by. We arrived at dusk yesterday, seemingly greeted by four or five Argali sheep which sped across the desert, spooked by our engines, but caught by the headlights. That was at the end of a 40km ride, which apart from a couple of gers, showed no sign of human existence. No utility wires, no fences, no vapour trails, and just the dirt track with no other traffic. Dinner last night was great; simple wholesome food, and plenty of it. But today, in the heat, we all helped erect another ger. Fascinating; space for a family, and it all packs down to about one and a half horse loads.
Wednesday 5 August
Choices and decisions! The argali project is collecting as much data as possible on these, the world's largest mountain sheep. They are in the red book, and numbers are ‘guestimates' at best. There are cinereous vultures to be tagged before they fledge. Only in the last few years was it discovered that they migrate, and there is much more to find out. Then there is the plan to capture and tag small mammals in defined areas. These are important species, in the middle of the food chain.
Saturday 8 August
We are getting used to the routine. Up very early to get the work done before it gets too hot. That means 40 degrees celsius. But we get an afternoon nap, time to doze and reflect.
Time still seems to run so fast, and yet there is something timeless about the desert. In the last three days I have participated in all three of the main projects. We did catch small mammals. They were measured, weighed, tagged and released. There were two types of hamster, some gerbils, and the first jerboa that I've ever seen. Traps are set with sesame seeds laced with peanut butter, and some of our captives wouldn't leave without their fill.
A little daunted, we left early to tag the vulture chicks before they fledge. I was surprised as to just how accommodating these huge birds were. There are two types of nests. One you find in stunted elm trees which grow to about five metres. The nests are very conspicuous. Other vultures nest in rocky outcrops. It looks steep and daunting from one perspective, but we could walk around the other side of the rocks and gently climb up, literally walking into the nests. This really was teamwork. The chick had to be measured, weighed, checked for parasites, give a blood sample, and tagged in under 10 minutes. Longer, and the birds do get stressed. It struck me that if we could just walk into the nest, why couldn't predators?
Leading this research were two great guys from Denver Zoo. So I asked. Apparently, there is an issue at the egg stage. If it is left unguarded, there are any numbers of hungry predators out there. But once they fledge, the success rate is almost 100 per cent. These chicks have an impressive wing span of nearly three metres. I guess that even the foxes would think twice.
And then there was a day looking for argali. Just four of us spent a day trekking across the desert. We didn't see any, but we did catch sight of some Siberian ibex, swifts and hoopoes, the occasional eagle and vultures. It was a great day, in the company of two Mongolian scientists, experts on this landscape. How else would I have a chance to experience this?
Thursday 13 August
Waking up from another good night's sleep in the ger. The vultures have mostly fledged, the lesser kestrels hadn't co-operated at all, but various other projects, including the small mammals, were continuing. We had updates and briefings every evening. Our efforts over the last few days had centred on the argali. We had been walking 10km transects, in groups of three, and 2 km apart. We were piloting a new scientific model for finding argali numbers. It had been exciting, out in the wilderness, getting a real sense of it, and working at the edge of science. Can't be bad!
Thursday 20 August
I am on the Trans Siberian Railway, a 30 hour journey from Ulaan Bataar to Beijing. A great time to evaluate the Earthwatch experience. I can't tell you all about it, but there are certain threads and flavours, completely unexpected, that I can't let slip. Without the Earthwatch experience I don't know how I would have met so many interesting people, and formed relationships in a way that is not generally open to tourists.
Because the projects are known, understood and valued by the local community, I get immediate credibility. The usual distrust of the stranger is gone. We met great people. We shared tea with the nomads in their ger, worked closely and happily with the Mongolian students, and built relationships with scientists of all types. Not only were they were all interested in my questions, everyone at Ikh Nart understood the contextual issues such as sharing water, over grazing, and the need to protect the environment as a whole. We met and worked with local rangers, enjoyed a real Mongolian barbecue, prepared by local herders. I felt that I experienced a real sense of that place, the desert steppe called the Gobi, and perhaps a greater sense of myself too.
I remain amazed and inspired by the leading scientists from Denver Zoo, and the Mongolian Academy of Science, together with the local students who created a year round field centre with so few resources. But they have built relationships, such that the local council came all the way out one evening and held its meeting in our camp. It is valued. For my part, it was a privilege to be part of all of that, even if only for a short time.
Report by Des Gould, 56, who joined Wildlife of the Mongolian Steppe in August 2009.
Find out more about the Wildlife of the Mongolian Steppe expedition.
Dr. Rich Reading talks about his work.