||Milking a camel in Zhavhan aimag; a camel
gives up to 600 liters of milk a year.
The wild two-humped Bactrian camel, camelus bactrianus ferus,
is indigenous to Mongolia. It was domesticated at least three thousand
The camel is one of the tavunhorshoo,'five snouts,' the five
domesticated animals of Mongolia on which the country's herding
economy depends: horse, cow/yak, sheep, goat, and camel. Camels
are raised all over Mongolia, but are found particularly in the
four Gobi aimags (provinces) in the south.
As a means of transport, the camel has for centuries been vital
for trade across the arid wastes of the country. The camel can carry
at least 200 kilos of goods and walks at five kilometers per hour
in its peculiar rolling gait. In other words, it is as fast as a
packhorse, and has three times the carrying capacity. Unloaded,
a camel can outrun a horse. In winter it continues to work through
-20 degree temperatures. Because of the camel, the semi-deserts
of the Gobi have not formed a barrier between Mongolia and the south.
Even now, camels carry up to thirty percent of the cargo traffic
in the Gobi.
Watering camels in the Gobi is hard work. Most wells are draw-wells,
not mechanically operated, and the water, often more than thirty
feet deep, has to be raised by hand. As each camel drinks about
100-120 liters at a time (a horse drinks 40-50 liters), watering
a herd can take several hours. A camel can go nine days without
water, 33 days without food, though these are extremes which it
is rarely forced to experience. A camel with two firm humps is in
good health and has been recently fed and watered; if one or both
of the humps droop, the camel needs some sustenance.
Besides its usefulness as a beast of burden, the camel gives
five to eight kilos of wool per year, and up to 600 liters of milk
a year. The milk is used for making hoormog, a kind of alcoholic
tonic drink, as well as butter and different kinds of cheeses.
Camel meat is also valued, which has led to a precipitous fall
in the number of camels in Mongolia in recent years. In 1994 the
government placed a ban on killing camels -- herders were slaughtering
their camels in lieu of smaller animals to fulfill the meat quotas,
calculated by weight, that they must supply to cooperatives.
The Great Gobi Strictly Protected Area, 5.3 million hectares
of protected land in the Southern Altai region, was created in 1975.
It provides a final refuge for wild camels, the last surviving wild
ancestors of the world's domestic camels. Perhaps 300 wild camels
still remain in the Gobi, though there have been no recent surveys
of this unusual animal, and the number is necessarily a rough estimate.
|Camels and herder in the Gobi in winter, Omnogovi
Few animals match the rare beauty and quiet mystery of the snow
leopard. Seldom do people see these animals in the wild: elusive
and solitary, they live in remote pockets of central Asia.
There are perhaps 6,000 snow leopards left in the wild. The
number is difficult to estimate since snow leopard terrain is rugged
and researchers must rely on indications of the animal rather than
Central Asia contains the largest concentration of mountains
in the world. These mountains are the home of the snow leopard,
which has been known to occur in twelve different countries: Afghanistan,
Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan,
Russia, ajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Borders between these countries
are often along mountain ranges -- the same high mountain ranges
are also the abode of the snow leopard.
To some scientists, the animal is known as an indicator species,
one that indicates the general health of a particular environment.
Since the snow leopard lives at the top of the food chain, if there
are abundant and healthy snow leopards in an area, there is probably
also a healthy local ecosystem. Conservation of the snow leopard
therefore contributes to conserving the chain of life that must
survive to support the snow leopard.
With its extensive territory needs, its position at the top
of the food chain, and its almost mystical appeal as a beautiful
resident of the loftiest mountains in the world, the snow leopard
is a powerful symbol for biodiversity conservation in central Asia.
A number of projects are under way to protect the snow leopard.
These include: * a conservation education package for school children
in Tibet, that focuses on the snow leopard as a symbol for conservation
of Tibet's unique high-elevation environments; * a field survey
of snow leopards in two specific reserves: the Khunjerab National
Park in Pakistan and the Taxkorgan Nature Reserve in China. Results
are being installed in an interactive database to record data on
snow leopard populations, their habitats, and their prey. * technical
assistance, training, and technology transfer to the Government
of Kyrgyzstan to help plan and manage the newly established Sarychat-Irtash-Uchkul
The primary threat to snow leopards is intense human population
growth. This phenomenon is occurring not only in lowlands of Asia
but also in high mountain areas that once were sparsely populated.
In Mongolia, for example, snow leopards are finding that they must
compete with humans and their livestock both for living space and
for their food supply. Marmots, a staple of snow leopards' diet
during the summer, are now being hunted heavily by humans for pelts,
meat, and oil. (Marmots are what is known as a "buffer prey" for
snow leopards: if marmots are plentiful, snow leopards are less
likely to attack herders' livestock.) With economic problems caused
by the dissolution of the Soviet Union, populations of several snow
leopard countries have been forced to become self-reliant. Intensive
scavenging for resources, including mineral resources, has caused
severe damage to local environments. Increase in domestic livestock
has squeezed the habitat of the snow leopard. The situation has
deteriorated quickly over the last five years.
||A Snow Leopard in the wild.
In snow leopard countries there are more than 130 official 'reserves'
that are believed to harbour snow leopards as well as argali sheep,
black-necked cranes, wild dog, markhor, and other endangered species.
Most of these, however, are reserves in name only. Few now have
resources to support rangers or conservation. One urgent need is
to establish corridors through which snow leopards in one threatened
area can travel to other territories. Already scientists are seeing
evidence of snow leopards travelling through (not living in) the
lowlands of the south Gobi region of Mongolia -- an area that was
once thought impossible for snow leopards.
A successful breeding program of snow leopards has been going
on in zoos or years. The program carefully monitors genetic lineage
in order to prevent inbreeding. The program cannot, however, create
animals that are the same as snow leopards living in the wild. A
photograph of a zoo animal shows an animal that has lost its spark.
A rare photograph of a snow leopard in the wild shows an animal
that is tense with vitality.
There are three stuffed snow leopards in the Natural History
Museum in Ulaanbaatar. Two of these were shot by a young biologist,
who now regrets his action. The museum felt it needed examples of
snow leopards in its collection and sent the biologist into the
field to 'get a snow leopard.'
Ancient shamanist practices, later incorporated into Lamaist
traditions, used a snow leopard's pelt as the vehicle on which the
shaman rode to the upper spirits. At the beginning of tsam dances
in Mongolia a snow leopard pelt was placed in the middle of the
courtyard; ritual dances were performed around it. To humans, snow
leopards have always possessed some sacred essence of nature. We
are fortunate to be living in a time when snow leopards still roam
the mountains of central Asia. When the mountains lose their last
snow leopard, a spark will have gone from the world.
|A group of "takhi," Przewalski horses, in
the Hustain Nuruu reserve, a protected area administered by
the Mongolia Association for Conservation of Nature and the
TAKHI (The Mongolian Wild Horse)
Wild horses once roamed in great herds over Mongolia. Numbers
declined with increasing competition for pastureland from domesticated
livestock. Remnants of herds were gradually pushed into the southern
Gobi -- they were discovered there by western explorers at the end
of the last century. Living specimens were then exported as novelties
to western zoos, where they were bred in captivity. The remaining
wild horses in Mongolia were exterminated during the 1950s when
hungry soldiers retreating from a failed insurrection in China hunted
them for food.
The Mongolian wild horse is regarded by some as a unique species,
differing in important ways from other horses in the world. The
subject is debated, however, and has taken on a nationalistic tinge
due to the symbolic importance of the horse in Mongolia. Research
is being done on the genetic makeup of the original animals, and
the extent to which genetic purity was maintained during decades
of captive breeding. The animals that have now been reintroduced
to Mongolia are distinguished by extremely heavy manes and an unusual
coloring that allows them to blend into steppe terrain. In winter,
the horses are white on their bellies and light-tan colored on their
backs; in summer, the light coloring darkens as snow cover on the
In Mongolia, this species of horse is called 'takhi,' a word
that reflects a reverence for horses. Takhi means spirit, or spiritual,
in Mongolian. The takhi is called the Przewalski horse in Europe
and America, after a Polish colonel who explored Siberia and Mongolia
for the Russian czar in the last century. Przewalski sent living
examples of this horse back to St. Petersburg. European zoos then
began to acquire individual horses for their collections. With the
extinction of the takhi in its native Mongolia, these zoo animals
became the only remaining examples of the species.
At the present time about 1,200 takhi are living in captivity
around the world. They have been bred in captivity for 11 to 13
generations. In 1990, a program to reintroduce the takhi into its
native homeland was agreed upon between the Mongolian Association
for Conservation of Nature and the Environment (MACNE) and a Dutch
Foundation that manages six semi-reserves for the horse in the Netherlands
and Germany. In 1992 the first thirty-two animals arrived at Hustain
Nuruu, a reserve one hundred ilometers west of Ulaanbaatar. They
came from reserves in Holland and the Ukraine, and were carefully
chosen for genetic variety, in order to produce vital offspring
that are as outbred as possible. Further transport of animals has
continued since that time and there are now around two hundred takhi
living back in Mongolia.
The Hustain Nuruu reserve includes three acclimatization areas,
which are large fenced-in areas in semi-mountainous terrain. They
incorporate a natural stream that runs through a valley. After one
or two seasons in this semi-protected area, horses are released
into the wild in 'harems' or groups of mares with one stallion each.
In June, 1994, the first two harems were released into the wild
and in July, 1995, a third harem was released to complete freedom.
|Three Przewalski horses
with their distinctive black manes and tails.
Eight foals were born at Hustain Nuruu in 1994 and of these
seven have survived the past winter, when temperatures went down
to negative 39 degrees C. (-30.4 degrees F).
In addition to the reintroduction of the takhi to the wild,
a separate Hustain Nuruu project was begun in 1993 that is called
the Hustain Nuruu Steppe Project. Its objective is to establish
an effective and sustainable management system for conserving the
biodiversity of the Hustain Nuruu Reserve. This program is a pilot
project for applying practical steppe conservation to Mongolian
In November 1993, the Mongolian government endorsed the official
status of Hustain Nuruu as a reserve. Regulations protecting its
flora and fauna were passed by the Mongolian Parliament in the spring
Even in the vast lands of Mongolia, creating such a reserve
is not easy. Herdsmen who have used the area for generations have
had to find other grazing land. Livestock and herdsmen are not allowed
within the area, and hunting for marmot and deer is forbidden. Undisturbed
steppe has become rare in Mongolia: cattle breeding is the main
source of income for the rural population, and at present 26 million
domestic animals exceed the carrying capacity of the land. This
MACNE program is working on realistic ways to balance human and
wildlife populations in a vital part of the world's ecosystem.