Mongolia shouldn’t be described as ‘untouched’
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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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