Sunday, January 8, 2012

A Winters day on the Mongolian Steppe: Hustai National Park

I find it hard to describe what the word endless really means. Its the feeling that you have when you lie down on you back and look at the dark sky and start feeling like you are actually falling into the sky. And I find the word endless very apt to describe the Mongolian steppe. It just goes on and on for ever! If you tried to keep looking at the horizon you will probably feel some kind of horizontal vertigo! 
This trip changed my perception of the Steppe. It went from being a sea of grass to a sea of snow
 Hustai National park is about two hours drive away from Ulaan Baatar. The famous attraction is the Prezwalski's Horse, the last remaining wild horse of the planet. Locally called the Takhi. It is in fact incorrect to call it the last remaining wild horse because it actually went extinct from the wild in the 60's. In 1992, 16 takhi were returned to the Khustain Nuruu National Park, and a captive breeding and re-introduction program was started. Such experiments are now being carried out for many species. Zoo's around the world claim such programs as their contribution to Wildlife Conservation. Current a similar mega project is underway in India where we are trying to bring back the cheetah that Went extinct in India in the 40's. 

A takhi! Image by Jeff Kubina from Wikimedia commons
The day began well for us. I was accompanied by Natsuko, a Japanese anthropology student and her two friends. After a nice two hours drive which felt like sailing in the snow we were welcomed in the park by two Golden Eagles at the park entrance. immediately followed by two Saker Facons. The park has a very good information center and restaurant. The showed a movie about the entire program. After paying an small entry fees we were accompanied by a guide inside the park. A few minutes drive and we spotter our first Takhi!
The Takhi grazing in the Hustai National Park

Seeing a wild horse in Mongolia has been my childhood dream. The fulling of this dream was very calming for me. Domestication of the horse is an important chapter in the history of civilization and to see that the ancestors of the horse was a very touching experience. This is the place where we are actually acting on our mistakes and re-wilding what was lost. I was also surprised to know that Mongolia welcomed this project and declared the Takhi as their national animal. Mongolia has a whole suit of charismatic species such as the Marco Polo Sheep, snow leopard, ibex but they chose to have the takhi as their symbol.
The endangered black vukture
The other surprise of the day was seeing the red deer in the in the middle of the steppe. I have always associated deer with forests but here the red deer were occupying the exact same landscape that I would have expected an argali or a blue sheep to occupy in the Himalaya. The day came to close with some brillient sightings of the black vulture, a globally endangered vulture. Also I did not fail to notice the large amount of livestock around and inside the park. It is not yet clear to me as to the impact of the livestock on the wild ungulates but clearly with over 270 takhi, the project is a success.

About 500 goat and sheep grazing just on the edge of the park


Sunday, January 1, 2012

Nostalic on New Years Morning!

Only for the second time I find myself in the field on the first day of the new year. January 1st 2008 I was in Spiti doing my Master's thesis in Spiti Valley in the Himalaya! January 1st 2012 I find myself in Ulaan Baatar doing research for my PhD! But unfortunately, the only similarity between four years ago and today is the freezing temperature; -31C as if today morning! But the cold temperature has brought back a flurry of memories from 4 years ago.
January 1st 2008, Takpa climbing up towards Kanamo

Four years ago on this very day Takpa and I were attempting to climb Mt. Kanamo. The summit of this peak stands tall at 5994m. The climb itself was easy but the temperature was excruciatingly cold. Today in Ulaan Baatar, although it is equally cold outside I am sitting in the cozy comfort of my centrally heated room with Internet, chatting with my folks back home. Have I lost the will to step out in the cold and do something adventures? may be not! I recently climbed the highest peak of the Tost mountains in the Gobi Desert region of Mongolia. A small spike of a little over 2500m, this peak is a easy hike. But the remoteness and the cold together makes it hard to get out of your tent and get going. Once you are out climbing up it is much easier.

Me on the summit of the highest peak in the Tost mountains in the Gobi region of Mongolia
Four years ago, Takpa and I were convinced that the cold was going to kill us both. This year I was convinced that I was going to fall to my death when I tried to descend through a dried up waterfall. In retrospect, I think none of the two times were so dangerous to bring us close to our deaths. But mountains have a way of cascading dangers. You make on false move and like a cascade your problems just keep on increasing. Sometimes, the fear of death even before the first mistake saves you the trouble of fighting the cascade.