With its vast open plains, rolling hills and pristine wetlands, Mongolia’s Eastern Steppe is one of Asia’s last grassland wildernesses. Great migratory herds of Mongolian gazelle roam here with grey wolves, Siberian marmots, eastern moose, red deer, roe deer, corsac foxes, Pallas’ cats, and Daurian hedgehogs, alongside six of the world’s 13 crane species, and nesting populations of golden eagle, steppe eagle, saker falcon, Amur falcon, red-footed falcon, lesser kestrel, and black vulture. Globally important populations of whooper swan and swan goose grace its clear lakes, while six-foot taimen – a trout called “river wolf” by local people – swim its rivers.
At 110,425 square miles – more than twice the size of New York State – most of the land on the Eastern Steppe is government-owned pasture used by the 200,000 nomadic herders living in small communities dotted across the landscape. These pastoralists depend directly on the fragile steppe landscape and its many ecosystem services – from grass to water to wildlife – and their low population density and traditional respect for nature have long left wildlife with the habitat they need to survive and flourish.
Unfortunately, illegal and unsustainable hunting by urban-based traders has depleted wildlife populations across the steppe. Expanding livestock production and mining, which brings new roads, railroads, and other barriers, prevents free movement of Mongolian gazelle and other migratory species. Since entering a free market economy, the number of herders and livestock has increased significantly on the Eastern Steppe – 140% over five years – leading to pasture degradation and increased risk of disease interaction between domestic animals and the steppe’s wildlife.
WCS’s vision for conservation of the Eastern Steppe of Mongolia is that Asia’s last wildlife migration spectacle of over one million Mongolian gazelle thrives across the world’s largest intact temperate grassland, and a full assemblage of grey wolf, Siberian marmot, white-naped crane, saker falcon, Pallas’ cat and other wildlife species are sustained by a network of well-managed protected areas and communal lands. Two decades of leadership in understanding the steppe ecosystem and building constructive partnerships have positioned WCS to deliver on this vision in the coming decade with new investments of $20 million – just five cents per acre each year.
Nearly two decades of conservation success position WCS to achieve its vision for the Eastern Steppe of Mongolia. We have built strong relationships with the full range of stakeholders, from government agencies to international and national donors and NGOs to local communities.
Mongolia’s transition from Soviet-style socialism to a free market system in the early 1990s opened trade borders with China, fueling a commercial trade in wildlife across the country. Government resources have been inadequate to monitor trade and enforce hunting regulations. As a result, populations of grey wolf, Siberian marmot and other wildlife have plummeted; the marmot population alone had dropped from 6 million in 1990 to fewer than 500,000 by 2005.
Short-term economic needs are driving oil, coal, gas and mineral exploitation in the region, which is progressively dividing the grassland with roads, railroads, and fences that risk blocking gazelle migration. These graceful grazers are particularly sensitive to barriers. If the gazelle population is to be conserved, the steppe landscape must be maintained by limiting and carefully placing any roads, buildings and fences.
Plans to intensify livestock production and develop large-scale, crop-based agriculture will further fragment the landscape, leaving fewer refuges for gazelle and increasing competition between wild gazelle and domesticated livestock for high quality pasture areas. These encounters also allow diseases such as brucellosis and foot-and-mouth disease to pass from domestic livestock herds to gazelle. At the same time, traditional livestock grazing patterns have been disrupted as people congregate around small towns where they are closer to health care, education and livestock markets. This concentration of herders brings with it overgrazing, water pollution, and rangeland degradation.
Careful coordination between the private and public sectors, local communities and national government, conservation organizations and industry is necessary if we are to succeed in protecting the Eastern Steppe and managing it as a single, unified landscape for species that rely on vast tracts of continuous habitat for their survival. The steppe’s protected area system is neither large enough nor has sufficient government-dedicated resources to ensure its survival. WCS understands these threats to the Eastern Steppe and has the vision, proven record of coupling field science with sound management, and strong local partnerships needed to conserve this unique landscape.