Mongolia

Conserving cinereous vultures, argali sheep, goitered gazelle, and saker falcons

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Wildlife of the Mongolian Steppe

Join our team on a 2019 or 2020 “Wildlife of the Mongolian Steppe” conservation research expedition to Ikh Nart Nature Reserve. Sign up through the Earthwatch website.

About Mongolia

Mongolia is the least densely populated country on earth, with 5 people per square mile and roughly half the population concentrated in the capital city, Ulaanbaatar. Between the Gobi Desert to the south and the Altai Mountains to the north, the rolling grasslands of the steppe are home to nomadic herders and close to 80 million livestock. This land is famously fenceless and, as they have for millennia, families move their gers (Mongolian yurts) with the seasons to ensure their sheep, goats, cattle, horses, and camels have year-round access to forage and water.

Why Ikh Nart Nature Reserve?

Situated in the Eastern Gobi Steppe, Ikh Nart Nature Reserve encompasses 66,000 hectares (approxy 160,000 acres) of semi-arid grassland, rocky outcroppings, and historic cultural sites. This unique ecosystem is home to a number of iconic Mongolian species including argali sheep, goitered gazelle, cinereous vultures, saker falcons, and marmots—many of which rely on the reserve for critical breeding habitat—as well as 150 herding families and their livestock who live within the reserve. Securing the survival of wildlife here means restoring and conserving the ecosystem in a way that also sustains human livelihoods and respects cultural traditions. For over 20 years, Denver Zoo has worked with Ikh Nart administration, local governments, and communities to do just that.

Answering Key Questions

One of the most pressing issues identified by stakeholders in Ikh Nart is the degradation of the rangelands on which both wildlife and herders rely. Climate change, drying water resources, and overgrazing are reducing the productivity of grasslands, but more research is needed to understand exactly how these effects are impacting the ecosystem and what can be done to stop or reverse the trend. Additionally, stakeholders identified human-wildlife conflict with cinereous vultures, seizure of saker falcon fledglings, and poaching of goitered gazelle as potentially major threats to wildlife within the reserve. Denver Zoo is conducting and analyzing comprehensive research to better understand the extent of these threats and the roles local communities can play in their mitigation. An additional threat—the possibility of disease transmission between livestock and wild ungulates—is being studied through an in-depth collaboration between the Denver Zoo’s Animal Health Department, the Mongolian State Central Veterinary Laboratory, and others.

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Conservation Approach in Mongolia

Having built solid working relationships with both reserve administration and local communities over two decades, Denver Zoo employs a comprehensive and inclusive approach to our conservation efforts. In addition to saving wildlife, we aim to strengthen the administration’s ability to effectively manage the reserve, work with herders to ensure their livelihoods are sustainable and compatible with the ecosystem, and support young Mongolians to become conservation champions. We do this through:

Community Engagement

  • Conduct ger-to-ger (home-to-home) outreach to learn about the ways in which Ikh Nart-based herding families use the landscape and natural resources, interact with wildlife, and perceive conservation initiatives. We also use these visits to raise awareness about key species and our conservation efforts and to collaboratively develop new strategies for the reduction of threats.
  • Invite community members to participate in key meetings concerning the management of the reserve, like the 2017 roundtable that helped inform the development of the latest Ikh Nart 5-year management plan.
  • Collaborate with teachers at local schools to develop and integrate Ikh Nart-focused lessons into Mongolian science curriculum and lead students on field visits to the reserve to ensure the next generation develops an appreciation for wildlife and their role in conservation.
  • Appoint Vulture Ambassadors who are responsible for monitoring known cinereous vulture nests and reporting any appearance of human disturbance. These individuals receive extensive training, a stipend for their service, and the opportunity to apply for a scholarship for their children.

Capacity Building

  • Build the professional capacity of future Mongolian conservation scientists and veterinarians through internships, mentorships, and research funding support. Many graduates have gone on to secure leadership roles with international conservation organizations and government agencies in Mongolia.
  • Carry out professional exchange visits that expose Mongolian educators, researchers, veterinarians, and park administrators to cutting-edge methods and facilities, expand their networks and grow their capacity to champion conservation in Mongolia.

Protected Area Management

  • Provide expert advice and technical support, based on sound science, that helps Ikh Nart administration manage the reserve, including development of reserve policy, law enforcement, and targeted species strategies.
  • Engage reserve administration, community members, and other stakeholders in an inclusive planning process to identify conservation targets and threats in Ikh Nart and then develop strategies to mitigate those threats and monitor the effectiveness of our efforts.
Conservation Mongolia

Partnerships

Conservation cannot be done alone, and Denver Zoo is thankful for our strong network of collaborators that contribute to the conservation of wildlife in Mongolia:

  • Ikh Nart Park Administration
  • Mongolian Conservation Coalition
  • Earthwatch Institute
  • Trust for Mutual Understanding
  • National University of Mongolia
  • State University of Education of Mongolia
  • State Central Veterinary Laboratory
  • Soum, Provincial, and National government

Conservation Success in Mongolia

Highlights of conservation success in Mongolia

  • In 2015, our Mongolia Program Director, Gana Wingard, was named Distinguished Environmentalist of Mongolia by the Mongolian Ministry of Nature and Green Development and Tourism. In 2018, she was honored with the Emerging Scientist Award by Earthwatch Institute.
  • Denver Zoo has collected 13 years of research data on cinereous vultures—one of the world’s most comprehensive raptor datasets—which is now being analyzed to help Ikh Nart administration develop its first vulture conservation strategy.
  • Over 100 university and graduate students have carried out hands-on ecological research projects at Ikh Nart, thanks to Denver Zoo funding, technical support, and mentorship.
  • Using data from argali sheep our team outfitted with satellite collars, Denver Zoo demonstrated that critical wildlife habitat fell outside of the protected area boundaries of Ikh Nart Nature Reserve. This information helped inspire two adjacent counties to create new protected areas such that the reserve is now largely surrounded and buffered by local protected areas.
  • Denver Zoo was the first organization to document lesser kestrel migration which showed these small raptors covered up to 12,000km and traveled from summering grounds in Mongolia to wintering grounds in central Africa.