Sunday, September 30, 2018

Week 2, The Adventure Continues ...., Ikh Nart Nature Reserve, Mongolia: September 23-29, 2018

This Sunday morning, we were back at the site next to the Cinereous Vulture nest just in time to see the fledgling fledge while Demoiselle Cranes chortled overhead. Nets were raised and before lunch we had three Argali Sheep netted, collared, and released.

On the release, this Argali sheep turned left for a better look at Dan. Spry Dan, quick and light on his feet, stepped aside all the while keeping his camera trained on the charging sheep.

With that success, the nets were dropped, rolled, and packed into the Russian vans to be set up back on flat land in hopes of getting another Goitered Gazelle. While the nets were put closer to the lake allowing us to also be closer to the lake, it was a slow afternoon of waiting.

The herders gathered for a post-op discussion. The herders are paid for each animal that hits the net. So, with nothing coming in, they earned nothing.

The nets were dropped for the night and we went back to the camp.

The next day, we had much better luck.

The team netted and collared a three-year old goitered gazelle. We returned after lunch with hopes for another gazelle, but it was not to be.

During the second week, I joined two of my ger mates (Lena and Nancy) for early morning walks. We always started out when it was still quite dark. At the turn around point, with the full moon visible in the early dawn sky, we didn't need our headlamps any longer.

One day on the way back to the ger camp we watched a group of five Ibex running along the side of one of the rocky slopes. Another day, we saw three Argali on a distant slope.

Ibex profile
Argali profiles
Back to drive netting, the nets were installed on higher ground today and it proved to be more exciting.

While we were hanging out at the end of the net next to some rocks, the herders drove in about a dozen Argali sheep. Unfortunately, the sheep ran over the top of the rock we were hiding next to and missed the net.

The herders regrouped and brought four Ibex to the nets; two of those were collared.

We had once last chance to capture an Argali not for collaring but for the data. Just as the sun was setting, the herders brought one in.

In seven days of drive netting, 10 animals were collared. Those that were captured and not collared, had blood samples taken and their physical data recorded.

The last two days we assisted with line transect surveys to count Argali Sheep. The first survey was in the southern part of Ikh Nart. Each team was dropped off 5km from the prior team, and each team walked 5km. It felt like we were in the middle of nowhere. The start of the survey was coordinated as was the walk's end. When Argali were spotted either in front or to the side, the number of animals and the range and compass readings were recorded. On the first survey, Dan and I were with Serchee. He's the one that spotted all the Argali. Some were 1 kilometer away and just dots to us, but he could identify male, female, adults, young, baby Argali. In total he spotted 31. 

After the first line transect survey, we visited a hibernaculum. This is a place where snakes hibernate. It is an opening in the earth about 13 meters deep. It was discovered when shepherds noticed that in winter steam rose from the spot. So far, it is the only hibernaculum in Mongolia. Anyway, the two types of snakes in Mongolia, Central Asian Viper (venomous) and the Pallas’s coluber (not) winter in this vent. While we were there, small snakes were all around the vent. We were told that both snakes are brown and look very similar which was not very reassuring as I gingerly stepped my way toward the vent.

 Pallas’s coluber or maybe a Central Asian Viper

A survey was repeated the next day in the northern portion of the reserve not far from the camp. This time Dan and I were separated because more teams were needed. Baaska was my colleague on this one. Sadly, we didn't see any Argali until after the end of the survey. We weren't the only ones who came up empty on this survey.


The weather was rapidly changing at camp, and on the drive from Ikh Nart north to Ulaanbaator, it began to snow.

Petrol station at the Korean Restaurant near Ulaanbaator
Mother Nature was letting us know that the good weather window was closing and it was time to return to California. We left Ulaanbaator, Mongolia, the next day.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Week 1 - Ikh Nart Nature Reserve, Mongolia: September 16-22, 2018

The last two weeks of our vacation we were Earthwatch volunteers in their "Wildlife of the Mongolian Steppe" program. This study of wildlife and habitat at Ikh Nart Nature Reserve has been going on for over 20 years. The research, which involves the local communities, has been conducted jointly by the Nature Reserve and by the Denver Zoo's conservation program. Ms. Ganchimeg Wingard (Gana for short) is the Mongolia program director at the Denver Zoological Foundation.

The literature says the research "focuses on how different species use resources and influence each other in this unique desert environment...., we explore how argali and ibex coexist, and the impact of domestic sheep and goats on argali and ibex." The researchers "work closely with local communities to increase their support for conservation, and to try to induce changes in livestock husbandry and wildlife use practices that will benefit the area's wildlife."

As the last Earthwatch volunteer group (team 5) of the year we assisted with drive netting of Argali Sheep ("near threatened status" and the largest mountain sheep in the world), Siberian Ibex (mountain goat), and Goitered Gazelles. Once caught in the nets, the animals were usually collared, their vital signs were monitored, measurements were made, blood samples were taken, and they were released. After the drive netting goals were reached, we helped with Line Transect Surveys for Argali Sheep.

Getting there and getting settled
After meeting the team in Ulaanbaator, we were driven about 5 hours south to Ikh Nart Nature Reserve. Along the way we saw a large herd of Mongolian Gazelles in the distance and a smaller group of bactrian (2 humps) camels near the road. We stopped at a roadside restaurant called Dreamy. The food wasn't particularly dreamy, but the decor was unexpected.

At the camp, there was a ger (Mongolian word for home) for women and one for men. A dome tent was put up for Dan and me because we wanted to sleep together. 

Home Sweet Home
For three nights, we toughed out the tent accommodations but wisely decided to go for warmth and more comfort when the weather changed for the worse and the high winds pushed the dome of the tent so low it touched our sleeping bags. Even worse the noise as the gusts blasted the tent would have made my sleep impossible.

The Ger Camp
The Office Ger
On the job
Our first day, we helped set up two parallel rows of 450-meter netting. If the animals manage to get through one side, it is hoped that the second side will ensnare it. Mongolian herders on motorcycles search the surrounding countryside for groups of animals. If they are able to herd the animal(s) toward the nets, herders on horses will join in to apply back pressure driving the animals to the net. Mongolian grad students are hidden on the ground near the nets so they can immediately get to the animal, collar it, and collect the data. Particular attention is paid to the animal's temperature and if its body temperature rises too high, it is released whether or not the data collection/collaring if finished.

Another day we set the double row of nets in a dry wash surrounding by a rocky landscape. The objective in this landscape was to catch Ibex and Argali. Most of the volunteers were hiding in the bushes at the ends of the nets while the herders were trying their best to locate and bring in some animals. 

Some volunteers were able to catch a few zzzzs while waiting for animals to arrive
At the end of each day if it was decided we'd return to the same spot the next morning, the nets were dropped down and we headed back to camp. If we were going to another site the next day, then the nets were rolled up and along with the stakes, and all was packed into one of the Russian vans.

Early the next morning, we were all back out at the nets hoping for better luck. We came up empty in the morning, but the afternoon brought several Ibex. A 5-year old Ibex was collared while the other two were released due to high body temperatures. Ibex are mountain animals and while they jump from rock to rock, they rest in between. The time it takes to herd Ibex to the net can cause an increase in their body temperature. The animals eyes are covered in an attempt to decrease its stress and each animal is wetted down and given water to control its temperature.

Duties assigned to Earthwatch volunteers are monitoring the animal's temperature, wetting down the animal with cool water, taking nasal samples with swabs, recording data, and taking photos (my job). Grad students hold down the animal, listen to the heart, and take measurements of the horns and body. A vet takes blood samples.

A Mongolian Herder holding a 2-way radio

Another day, another location. Nets were set early morning and before lunch a 10-year old Argali Sheep was netted, collared, and released. Unlike the Ibex, Argali are running animals and as a result the drive in doesn't increase their body temperatures as quickly.

The nets were in another sandy wash and rocks were needed to weight down the ends of the net. Rock lifting was highly competitive.

The traditional robe-like clothing worn by men is called a deel. It is padded and very warm. Perfect for the cool temperatures.

The nest of a Cinereous Vulture was right next to the dry wash where the nets were set up. The nest still had a late fledgling in it. In early August when still unable to fly, each fledgling is wing tagged. This one is "DT." When we returned to this site a couple of days later, we saw him/her finally fly away. It is one of the two largest Old World Vultures with a wing span of about 10 feet.

Hiding near the nets
On a couple of days, Dan and I were invited to hide high up on a rocky overlook which gave us the big-picture prospective of the net-driving operation. Watching the Mongolian herders work was a thing of beauty.
Herders push five Argali toward the nets
One Argali tangled in the net, four slip through
On another day, two Argali were captured

10-year old female Argali collared
After that success it was back to the camp for a Mongolian BBQ and a visit to the ger of a Park Ranger and his family. It is Saturday and we have an afternoon off.

Hot coals were placed in the bottom of these large pressure-cooker canisters. Layers of onions, goat meat, carrots and potatoes were placed on top of the coals. The containers were closed and left to cook. This Mongolian BBQ was excellent with oh so tender meat and vegetables.

On the way to visit the Ranger and his family, we stopped to interact with some friendly camels.

Once inside the ranger's ger, his wife served us a very pleasant milk tea made with green tea. We were also offered yogurt that had a slightly smokey flavor, and dried pieces of yogurt. Mongolian hospitality is generous even when 12 persons just drop in.

Our half-day off wasn't over. It was Saturday night and music and dancing were just 45 minutes or so from the camp at a small community center. We went. The music was loud and the light came from a disco ball. The dancing varied from contemporary dance to ballroom dancing. Mongolians are taught 10 classic dances in school. We danced.

Tomorrow, back to work.