Worldwide, the international trade in wildlife and wildlife products is estimated to be worth billions of dollars, and to involve more than 350 million plant and animal species. A global increase in human population, easy access to weaponry for hunting, a resurgence of traditional medical practices, and a global demand for animal products such as furs, are just some of the reasons that the global wildlife trade has grown to unsustainable levels. In recent years, the scale and threat to biodiversity of this trade has become increasingly recognized.
Historically, Mongolia has been home to large populations of a variety of species. Ungulates such as the Mongolian gazelle, Przewalski’s horse and the wild Bactrian camel, canids such as the grey wolf, felids such as the snow leopard, several mustelids, and over 60 species of rodents. An extremely low human population density, a climate and soil unsuited to intensive agriculture, a lack of infrastructure, and a traditional respect for the natural world all contributed to a landscape teeming with wildlife. Unfortunately, in recent decades this picture has begun to change rapidly.
Mongolia has recently undergone rapid economic and social change. In 1990 the Democratic Revolution saw a transition from the centrally-controlled economy of the communist ‘People’s Republic of Mongolia’, to an (initially chaotic) free market system. A sudden withdrawal of regulation for hunting and trade, coupled with the opening of trade borders with China (a country famous for its appetite for natural resources), produced a sudden increase in the domestic and especially international trade of Mongolia’s wildlife.
The resulting pressure on Mongolia’s wildlife has been further exacerbated by changes in land-use (as a formerly nomadic population becomes slowly more sedentary and urbanized), and rapid infrastructure development (prompted by the booming extractive industries – especially gold, copper, and oil). Such development almost inevitably threatens local wildlife, primary through the fragmentation, degradation and pollution of habitat, and formation of barriers to migration (such as fences and railway lines).
The general pattern of wildlife trade in Mongolia starts with a hunter in the countryside (either a professional hunter, or a herder desiring additional income), shooting an animal, without a hunting license. The carcass, skin, or meat is then either sold to a wholesaler, or sold directly to consumers at the soum (district) or aimag (province) center. The wholesaler may transport these animal parts to a market on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, where they are stored, processed and prepared for domestic sale, or export. Alternatively, in areas close to border points, international export may be direct.
The main categories of wildlife trade in Mongolia are for food, souvenirs/clothing (including Furs), and for traditional medicine. While some species are traded for a single purpose (for example fish, for food), with other examples such as the grey wolf, almost every part of the animal is put to some use. Commonly traded items include grey wolf skins, meat, and bones, Siberian marmot skins, meat, and oil, red fox skins, Mongolian gazelle horns and legs, badger blood, meat and oil, red deer horns, and Altai snowcock meat. Trade in meat is thought to make up much of the domestic trade, while the international trade is thought to show a larger proportion of furs, and items for Chinese medicine.
Most large mammals, birds, and fish in Mongolia are threatened to some degree by this trade. This includes five species listed under CITES Appendix II, one species ‘Endangered’ (IUCN Red List), six species ‘Rare’ (IUCN Red List), and six other species also found in the IUCN Red List.