Saturday, July 12, 2014

A road trip across Mongolia

I was in the South Gobi province of Mongolia working with Jens karlsson and Gustaf Samelius on a project to safe guard livestock stocking corrals from snow leopards and wolves. Jens has more experience fencing out large carnivores than any other wildlife biologist that I know.
A fence that we build around Burran's corral in the Gobi Desert. The dark soil is actually a meter deep goat poop!
The details of the project aside, but I was really excited about this trip to Mongolia because this was in spring, in April, the season for bird migrations. Our very first afternoon in the Gobi Desert and had the sky filling up with migrating geese and ducks. The most majestic flocks I have ever seen. A few thousand at the least.
Jens, Burran and Burran's kid
Working on building fences was new for me. My first experience with Civil engineering. I didn't get any better with because I had one eye on passing birds.
Burran shows Jens the petroglyphs near his corral. Its a horseman with bow and arrow hunting what appears to be a male red-deer.

Petroglyphs of red deer are common in the Gobi, alongside that of ibex, snow leopards and wolves. The petroglyphs of red deer indicate that the Gobi was not so dry always. It had the red-deer which occupies relatively wetter areas. No red deer in the gobi any more.
Cashmere goats. The cashmere industry in the west drives life in the remote gobi desert. Herders depend on the cashmere goats for a living. The killing of these goats by snow leopards and wolves is economic blow. Herders kill these predators to keep the damage low. 
The idea of building fences around livestock corral is to keep the livestock killing by carnivores to the minimum. Thus removing the herders motivation for killing the predator. Of course we will have to follow-up with the herders to make sure that support carnivore conservation.
The first thing that comes to mind when we hear Mongolia is Chinggis Khan and horses.
I haven't been so fortunate to be able to ride horses in the Gobi but should I get a chance I would rather do it bare-back. The Mongolian saddles are made of wood and extremely hard. 
Watering a horse
 Gobi has a lot of livestock; goat, sheep, horses, camels, cattle. They all depend on these wells which are barely a thirty or forty feet deep. These well were dug up during the communism time. Now, with the big mines (coal and copper) digger has led to a lowering of ground water table in the region threatening this age-old form of life.
The dog form the west
I spent the winter of 2011-12 in the Gobi. One evening this dog just walked up to me and started playing, When I inquired around the herders said that he just walked up from the one day and has been hanging around. He guarded my camp that winter. This time I was happy to see that the dog had adopted a neighboring herder. He was delighted to see me. So was I. After an hours play he led me to this well.
A white wagtail. There is a good chance that this guy flew in from India only a couple of hours ago. Well he must have left a while ago but reached only now.
A ger
Life in the desert is simple. A hut, a couple of motor-cycles for herding goats, and jeep to move camps. Notice the solar power and the satellite antenna for television. 

Off-roading in the grassland seems like fun but not for the ecology of the region. Its fun because it is negotiable and offers a long view 

After we were done putting up two trial fences we were ready to get back to Ulan Baatar and head back to India. Call it a stroke of luck, but we did not get seats on the flight from Ovoot to Ulaan Baatar. The good news was that we would be driving all the way from Gurvantes, which is near the Chinese border in the south, to Ulan Baatar. A drive of 900km and estimated time was two days!

As we drove north the grass became greener
 Miji and Sumbee drove the entire distance. The big russian van was the ideal vehicle for such a journey. Of course the Mongolians would disagree because they prefer the LandRover.
Miji and the big Russian van
The road was littered with Isabaline Shrikes and Voles and feeding on them were the Upland Buzzards. I never imagined that a land could support so many raptors. The sky was full of Black Vultures, the pastures laden with buzzard, the occasional falcon flew across flocks of larks and the eagles were perched on the electric poles. The migration was in full swing. Even small ponds were full of Swans and Geese and Gulls.
Desert gave way to tar roads
For wildlife, the mud roads of the desert were great. We saw a few herds of Black-tailed Gazzelle. A lone spoonbill stranded in the sand. 
Herders on their horse with wood pole lasso. This is the traditional way of livestock herding. 
The modern Mongolian herder use motor bikes!
I am not sure what that JCB is doing in the pasture


The scenery changed rapidly as we approached Ulan Baatar

Ulan Baatar holds a juxtaposition of the old communist/Soviet grandeur and modern western briskness with its Braodway Pizzas 

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