Mongolia shouldn’t be described as ‘untouched’

The GrUBe

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Mongolia shouldn’t be described as ‘untouched’

Published Friday March 29, 2013

By Elizabeth Bryning

The other morning when I was reading the newspaper I came across an article that made me almost choke on my coffee. The article said that Mongolia had been ranked 15th among the top places in the world to visit in 2013. Now, don’t get me wrong, I certainly agree that Mongolia is one of the top places in the world to visit; it is definitely a country everyone should see, in any year. What made me splutter my coffee all over the newspaper was the reason given in the article for visiting Mongolia: its “untouched countryside.”

Untouched? Mongolia’s countryside described as “untouched?” I could only assume that the author of the article has never been here. It seems to me that the only explanation for the choice of the word “untouched” was because the author’s feet have never touched Mongolia’s soil.

I arrived in Mongolia several years ago and have been searching ever since for some “untouched” countryside. I have yet to find it.

There may be an “untouched” corner somewhere. I haven’t been everywhere. But describing the general countryside of this country as “untouched” is, well, “creative.”

The first thing you notice when you’re travelling in the Mongolian countryside is the number of tracks crisscrossing the steppe. There are sections of land that have so many tracks, side by side, that it resembles a ten-lane highway. This is not my idea of “untouched.”

Then you notice the many exposed patches on the steppe where the pasture has been grazed completely away and the top soil is eroding rapidly, throwing dust into your eyes as your four-wheel-drive bounces by. Nope, that doesn’t seem very “untouched” to me either.

And when you get out of your vehicle and walk around, you can barely go five paces without tripping over an empty vodka bottle, even in the most remote and unpopulated corners of the country. Hell no, that’s not “untouched.”

And the amount of plastic waste littering the steppe makes you think “rubbish tip,” not “untouched.”

Then there are the polluted rivers and streams … The levels of toxic chemicals and heavy metals (arsenic, mercury, etc.) in the water also don’t bring the word “untouched” to mind. And don’t get me started on the lack of trees and appalling rate of deforestation in this country. You can’t call the forests “untouched” either.

Travelling across the steppe for a few days you get see a few million livestock, including goats, sheep, horses, camels, and yaks. But after a while you notice that you haven’t seen a single wild animal. No marmots, no elk, no wolves, no snow leopards, no deer, and barely a bird in the sky. You begin to ask yourself, “Where are all Mongolia’s wildlife?”

By doing some research, I found out that Mongolia has around 700 species of wildlife, many of which are not found anywhere else in the world. But many of its wild species are endangered. Mongolia’s wildlife are disappearing faster than fresh batches of buuz on Tsagaan Sar.

Mongolia’s only endemic bear species, the critically endangered Mazaalai (Gobi Bear), is likely to be wiped off the face of the earth sometime very soon. At the last count, there were about 22 of these bears left. This is a tiny population, and is probably far less than the “minimum viable population” necessary to allow this species to continue to survive in the wild. Sadly, unless something substantial is done to protect these animals, and soon, the current generation of Mongolians will become infamous for being the generation that let the Mazaalai die.

While Mongolia’s native horse, the Tahki (Przewalski’s horse), is fairly well-known, few people in the world know that the Tahki has a cousin, Mongolia’s own native donkey, the Khulan (Mongolian Wild Ass). The Khulan is not facing a very happy future. The number of Khulan remaining in Mongolia was recently estimated to be less than 20,000. The population of this endangered species has been decimated in recent decades, with the number declining by an estimated 50 percent since the end of 1990′s. The Khulan lives with the Mazaalai in the definitely-not-untouched Gobi region, so it barely stands a chance of survival. Experts believe that unless significant steps are taken to protect the Khulan, this species may be eradicated by the end of this decade. Another honor for current generation. How proud Chinngis Khaan would be.

The Khulan, Mazaalai, and other wildlife face two main threats. The first threat is habitat loss. This is caused by such things as the spread of herders into wild animals’ habitats (with livestock consuming wild animals’ food and water); overstocking of goats and other livestock, which leads to overgrazing and desertification of the wildlife’s habitat; felling of the trees that supply shelter and maintain the water cycle for wild animals; and pollution of waterways by mining activities, adversely affecting water supplies for flora and fauna.

The second main threat to wildlife is hunting. The Khulan are mostly hunted by local herders who see this animal as a competitor for the limited natural resources (pasture and water) in the Gobi region. The Mazaalai and other wildlife are mainly hunted by psychopaths. Yes, you read that right. There is no other way to accurately describe people who kill animals for fun.

There seems to be a collective delusion in this country that Mongolia is still what it once was: a vast pristine landscape with a balanced rural socio-economic system in which people lived off nature and therefore respected nature’s gifts. In this system, people hunted on horseback, with bows and arrows, in order to get the food and clothing they needed for survival. In general, they did not take more than their environment could provide.

But that was a long, long time ago. I’m sorry to be the one to say this: the Mongolian way of life is not like that anymore.

This country has a dwindling number of herders, and the herders today do not need to eat marmots to survive or kill snow leopards and wolves for fur. While herder numbers are declining, the number of livestock is growing, and there are too many for the damaged and arid plains to support sustainably. The miners are polluting the soil and water. Forests are being cut down. The massive four-wheel-drive vehicles that everyone likes to drive are destroying wildlife habitat, and crushing endangered species beneath their wheels. And the “sport” of hunting is going straight for the jugular: directly wiping out Mongolia’s rare and exceptional wildlife, the natural heritage of this country.

This situation reminds me of the message presented in the fairytale called “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” For those of you who don’t know it, the story is about two swindlers who promise an emperor a set of sumptuous clothes, telling the emperor that the clothes are invisible to people who are incompetent in their jobs or stupid. The swindlers pretend to dress the emperor in these clothes and the emperor doesn’t question the fact that he can’t see the clothes, as he wants to appear clever. He then parades naked before his subjects, thinking that he is wearing the new clothes. His government ministers and the general public can’t see the clothes but they pretend that they do, for fear of appearing stupid. Finally, a child cries out that the emperor is naked, and the people realize they have been fooled.

Here in Mongolia, the “invisible set of clothes” is the collective delusion that Mongolia is still a pristine (“untouched”) land of herders living in harmony with the land. Everyone wants to believe that this is true. And nobody wants to be the unpopular person who points out that we are all being fooled.

The Government of Mongolia claims that it wants to protect nature and encourage tourists to visit this amazing country. But many of its policies contradict that claim. I’ll just mention two of those policies here.

First, the government allows Mongolians and foreigners to kill wildlife, including endangered species. “Hunters” can shoot just about anything that moves. The government claims this is a way to earn revenue. But compared to the revenue that could be earned from nature tourism, the revenue from the sale of hunting permits brings in a relatively tiny amount; an amount that will quickly dwindle as all of the wild animals in Mongolia are decimated. If the government is serious about raising revenue, it should encourage tourist “safaris,” in which people photograph animals rather than kill them. That would be a far more sustainable financial strategy.

Second, the government encourages herders to breed more and more livestock, awarding the herders who produce the largest numbers of livestock with prizes and honors. The focus is on quantity and little attention is paid to quality. Herders should be awarded for producing the highest-quality wool, meat and dairy products, not the largest amount. And here’s a suggestion: give herders awards for caring for the land. The prizes should be awarded to those herders who reduce desertification and deforestation, not increase it.

Whatever the government and people of this country decide to do about the issues, I have a simple request for everyone: Please stop describing Mongolia’s countryside as “untouched.” It’s not.


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Posted by on Apr 10 2013. Filed under Community, Opinion. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

2 Comments for “Mongolia shouldn’t be described as ‘untouched’”

  1. Mongolia still has thousandths of miles of untouched land. In order to see this land, you need to travel at least a couple thousandth miles west. The reason why it is untouched is because we had so much land that it was hard for us to populate every single part of the land we conquered. So before you say more, go to Mongolia and see what nobody has ever seen. Then, I suggest you rewrite your article.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. I have never been to Mongolia but help run a small UK charity that provides aid to low-income herders in several of its more impoverished aimags, including those in the Gobi Desert fringes.

    You have made several hard-hitting points, such as increased desertification, largely (though not entirely) due to overgrazing by livestock, especially goats. They are notorious for their destruction of pasture by devouring or destroying all roots including non-grasses, leaving just dust in their wake.

    But there’s the rub, and although you make the valid point that herders should be rewarded for preserving the environment, you’ve lost sight of the harsh economic conditions that the majority of them have to face, just to make a living. Bear in mind that they have little, if any, alternative way of life. and that not only do they represent about a third of the total population, but importantly around 70% of them are small-scale with mixed livestock of 200 or less. This is reckoned as the viability level sufficient to sustain a family with food and income derived from cashmere, meat, skins and other by-products.

    For some 800,000 herders spread across the country that means more than half a million living at or below poverty level, one that nationally hasn’t dropped below 30%. Just read Pearly Jacob’s recent UB Post article April 10th “Herders caught between cashmere and climate change” which is to be found alongside yours!

    And since your articles are intended to relate mainly to UB, remember that its present population at over 1 million has doubled in only a few years, and why? Mostly by herders who lost their livelihoods by repeated dzud disasters, exacerbated by desertification, climate change, and unstable market condition for their products, especially cashmere.

    Here’s just one quote from that article “Overall, though, temperatures seem to be rising steadily. In 2009, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) declared that annual average temperatures in Mongolia have risen by 2.1 degrees Celsius over the last 70 years. The agency also reported a 30 percent decline in surface water over the past 15 years, adding that 90 percent of Mongolia is at risk of becoming desert.”

    And that last sentence should be ringing more alarm bells than any other. I believe that no matter what progress Mongolia makes economically from minerals, it must do more to tackle the long-term dangers it faces from reduced surface water and desertification.

    As herders are the focus of our work I return to them – all 800,000 of them. Apart from those 30% who are big enough in scale to keep their heads above water (sorry for unavoidable pun) what’s to happen to the large majority that depend entirely on livestock, especially goats? Our small charity helps with refurbishing or digging shallow wells to serve livestock and humans in remote regions, and we support a tree-nursery project – Gobi Oasis – in Mandalgobi – which incidentally gets no government support for the invaluable anti-desertification project it’s been trying to tackle there for decades.www.gobioasis.com

    Try this quote for an idea of how bad things can get “Mining may have created over 12,000 job opportunities, but it has also resulted in an estimated 100,000 desperate and impoverished herders engaging in illegal artisanal and small-scale mining activities”. The quote was from a 2010 online article published by ecology group http://www.mongolec.org/ (the article is no longer online)

    To barely summarise what I see as a response to your otherwise mostly valid and brave article, the fact that Mongolia is less than ‘untouched’ is the very least of its worries. Close to the heart of its problems – if not centre to them – is its livestock industry and those that uphold it, the herders. If rural herder needs are not addressed yet more will migrate to town centres, and to UB which is already vastly over burdened.

    Measures to provide them with a sustainable livelihood include the adequate provision of wells either shallow or engineered. Pollution of water to rivers, streams and aquifers from whatever sources – especially industry and mining – must be more strictly governed. Herd sizes need regulating, as does their habitat and this will mean better management of pasture by combining small herds within regulated boundaries. This will allow pasture to regenerate and reduce herd-trekking – itself a contribution to desertification.

    Their products, especially cashmere, but also their other by-products need more stable markets to enable herders to plan ahead, to aim for quality not quantity, fewer animals, and less need to force-march huge numbers of livestock just seeking pasture and water. They badly need a better future for themselves and their children.

    To finalise I think it fair to say that there really are many areas of Mongolia that are untouched if the many pictures I have are anything to go by. It is after all a country of 1.5 millions sq kms, nearly 3 times the size of France! Not all is rubbish-covered or multi-tracked by vehicles, and there’s an increasing number of tourists grateful for being shown these unique and beautiful attractions. But these are in real danger of being lost if urgent steps are not taken to safeguard them.

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