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 object in this landscape was 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, 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.

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