Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Golden Gobi

I had lost the sunlight over an hour ago. Well, the sunlight barely made it into these narrow canyons during this time of the year. I was in the South Gobi region of Mongolia and this was the month of November. With no sun reaching the dept of these canyons, the temperature was well below freezing. The one thing I
The main highway cutting across
the Tost and Tosunbumba mountains
dreaded the most in this region was a bike crash. And just as the thought crossed my mind, the rear wheel of my bike wobbled in the loose gravel and I came down crashing. Lying on the ground I smelled petrol and so I immediately rushed to the bike and put it on the main stand. Only a little petrol had leaked. I had a minor bruise on my left thigh but otherwise I seemed alright.

I pulled out the map of the region and my GPS unit and pondered for a while. After a few minutes I admitted to myself that I was lost! With the sun going down my situation was worsening. My best bet was to head dead north, get out of the mountain and into the open steppe, and I should be able to see the road; simple! Find the highway in the steppe and get back to camp. If I could make it to the highway before total dark I should be fine.

An ibex in the late evening. Usually they
prefer the rugged rocky cliffs
I was here in the Gobi desert to try and assess the conservation status and distribution of wild ungulates in the newly proposed Local Protected area around the Tost-Tosunbumba mountains. Alongside, I also hoped to estimate the availability of wild-ungulate-prey for the snow leopard which would complement my work in India. This is also the site of the Long Term Ecological Study, a joint venture of the Snow Leopard Trust and PANTHERA. The only place in the world where you can study the snow leopard using, almost exclusively, a motorbike to get around. Orjan, a colleague from Sweden, is also doing his PhD here. He is incredible when it comes to collaring snow leopards. He has already collared 15 snow leopards and 6 of them currently carry their collars. The study is aimed at understanding the home range, movement and predation pattern of snow leopards. I felt that our work complimented each other very well.
"Nartai", Sunlight, as we called him, was the last snow leopard that Orjan had collared before leaving for Sweden

The most abundant ungulate in this region was the Siberian ibex Capra sibirica and the argali Ovis amon. Though the latter is comparatively much rarer. Outside the mountains and into the steppe there is also the Black-tailed gazelle, khulan and the occasional wild Bactrian camel that stray from the neighboring Great Gobi Strictly Protected area.
Argali, the biggest wild-sheep in the world.
They mainly preffer the rolling hills on the
periphery of the Tost Mountains

From my assessments so far, there is a healthy population of ibex. Large enough to support a viable population of the snow leopards. But the status of the other four ungulates is bleak. Interviews with the local herders suggested that the Khulan may even have gone locally extinct; sometime over the last decade. Nadia, an alumni of the M.Sc. Course at the Wildlife Institute of India, but a local Mongolian, helped with the interview surveys. She also found out that it was only a few male bactrian camels that made forays to this region , that too only during winters, probably in search of mates among the domestic free-ranging camel population. Over the last decade the Black-tailed gazelle has retreated further west and exists as a small population of less than 30 individuals. Even though the argali is distributed over a much larger area, their population seems small, as sighting an argali is a difficult task.
The gloden glow of the Gobi is deceptive. It masks the bitter cold!

Even if this area was declared a Local Protected Area, it was threatened by the mining companies that had already procured licenses to explore for minerals in this region. I had already seen some of the mining activity within the borders of the PA. Then there was also the illegal, open-cast mining for gold; aptly called Ninja mining. You hardly ever saw people doing it, just the scares left on the land! The border with China, the sink for all the minerals of Mongolia,  is barely 40 km away from here. The nightmare of straying into china that haunted me at my field site in Spiti, Himachal Pradesh, India, still haunts me here!
The Golden Gobi!

As these thoughts were running in my head, I rode over a gentle rolling hill and the vast steppe opened in front of me. The warm glow of the setting sun reflected from the dry grass covering the landscape in shades of gold! I wondered why anyone would want to dig up a place as beautiful as this.

I guess, the glitter of gold outshines the Gobi!


  1. awesome man, kullu! makes for a lovely read. it's almost like being there :)
    someday, i guess.

  2. Hats of to your courage and spirit of adventure.There are such wonders in unknown places in the world. Here, we all sit huddle around our TV sets!

  3. Nice to see the Gobi in winter!

    As far as mining for minerals is concerned, it is probably more for generating resources on the Mongolian side than for China (I heard sometime ago that China is importing minerals on a large scale from Africa and Australia). So, how is a country like Mongolia going to generate resources otherwise? One way is to recommend the protected area as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, promote wildlife tourism and related local community activities in the summers. Promote education, health care and training etc.

  4. Mongolia mines coal, gold, silver and copper on a large scale. The coal is primarily used for power generation. China must be importing a lot of other minerals from Africa and Australia but these places are too far away to source coal for power production! Mongolia is a cheap source of coal. The south Gobi province is mined for coal, gold, halite and some copper. There are direct roads and a proposed rail directly connecting Mongolia and inner Mongolia province of China.

    Mining is one of the most important source of revenue for the Mongolian government. It is creating jobs and is the most important contributer to the GDP but locally, in some parts, there is unhappiness about it (eg. Tost mountains) where the livestock herders form the largest opposition to mining. They are worried about their pastures. They believe that mining will happen only for a couple of decades but their pastures will be damaged forever. Herders in this part are on the whole better-off than herders in many other parts of Mongolia. Many herders own a four-wheel vehicle and almost all own at least a motorbike.

    Ofcourse Mongolia needs its mines but the proposal is for reducing its impact to bare minimum. The Tost region is already proposed as a Protected area by the Soum government (District Government). This empowers the Soum government to Moderate tourism and other activities in this region. A stakeholder meeting scheduled later in January this year is supposed to discuss these aspects of revenue generation. Along with the unique wildlife of the Gobi the administration is also taking into consideration the archaeological importance of this place. Just 50 km from here is where Roy Chapman Andrews discovered Dinosaur eggs for the first time in 1923. Tourism already forms a large part of the revenue for Mongolia and South Gobi but it is no direct match for mining. But the government is now getting cautious about mining and mining permits. They had given out blanket exploration permits for the almost the whole of South Gobi a few years ago (except for the Great Gobi Strict PA and Three beauties NP). Now they are more careful in allowing exploration and extraction.

    While we have the small Tost region protected now the entire country is debating their future and mining and we will have to wait and see!

  5. I am sure sustainability and protection of wildlife corridors will be on their agenda. Let the Agenda 21 of Rio Declaration provide the basic guidelines. Let policy and institutional support translate these objectives into action plans at the local level.

  6. Thanks for the advice on Agenda 21 of Rio; I will look it up. Lets hope that sustainability and wildlife corridors will be on their agenda.