By Jake Cohen
In winter, Mongolia’s Eastern Steppe becomes a forbidding, frozen landscape, fit neither for man nor beast. The hardy living beings that remain — herders, their domesticated livestock and an eclectic mix of wildlife — hunker down, largely leaving the frozen landscape to an intrepid few.
But the cold steppe has gained a new infusion of warm-blooded visitors.
The Nature Conservancy recently procured a sport utility vehicle so rangers can traverse the vast Toson Hulstai Nature Reserve during the punishing winter months. Their patrols follow Conservancy-devised routes that allow them to learn about the state of the winter steppe and enforce environmental regulations.
“I think the patrols are very successful,” says Tuguldur Enkhtsetseg, a field biologist with the Conservancy’s Mongolia Program who helps coordinate the rangers of Toson Hulstai. “Now that we’re able to patrol the reserve at all times of the year, we can more thoroughly protect the reserve’s natural resources.”
The Toson Hulstai reserve protects a kidney-shaped chunk of the Eastern Steppe that sprawls across two of Mongolia’s eastern provinces and five different counties, or soums. Altogether, Toson Hulstai covers nearly 1.2 million acres — an area larger than the state of Rhode Island.
Compounding the difficulties raised by the region’s size, the steppe was recently hit by a dzud — a particularly snowy, cold winter preceded by a summer drought. Temperatures dropped to -50 degrees Fahrenheit, and the weather left well over 3 million livestock dead, making an already difficult winter all the more devastating for many herders throughout the region.
Those conditions would have made patrolling a tall order for the formerly lone ranger assigned to the reserve. But the Conservancy convinced the government that the reserve needed a larger management presence and, by offering funding support for new equipment, helped create five new ranger positions.
Tuguldur worked with the rangers to devise a set of carefully coordinated routes that would allow the rangers’ monthly patrols to cover the maximum amount of ground. Armed with GPS devices, the rangers drove off into the steppe’s frigid expanse, ready to enforce environmental regulations and gain a better understanding of what winter meant for Toson Hulstai’s wildlife.
Due to the dangerous and extreme weather conditions created by the dzud, the rangers adjusted their routes so they could stay overnight in local families’ gers, or yurts. Tents didn’t provide enough warmth to the rangers, who had to sleep in double sleeping bags, even inside the gers.
Even then, a restful night was not always in the cards. The frigid nighttime temperatures often made it necessary for rangers to get up every hour and run the vehicle so that a dead battery wouldn’t leave them stranded on the steppe.
Luckily, the rangers found gracious hosts: around 200 herders make their winter camps within the reserve’s borders. Collectively, those herders are shepherding more than 90,000 domesticated animals, including sheep, goats and even camels.
Rangers handed out brochures that revealed how wildlife removal can destabilize local ecosystems and harm the livelihoods of herders, who rely on the health of the land they roam for sustenance. The rangers also confiscated several illegal traps and pelts in the herders’ camps as part of their efforts to keep the steppe’s grasslands vibrant and productive.
The rangers’ routes connected the tops of hills and afforded them the visibility necessary for taking a long, hard look at the steppe’s winter ecology. Rangers charted the lakes and rocky outcroppings most in need of protection. Features like those provide water and protection for Toson Hulstai's native species.
Rangers ran into more than a few of those on their routes. They spotted more than 300 Mongolian gazelles spread over eight herds. In addition to a wide variety of foxes and hares, they also observed a lone Daurian hedgehog who — for unknown reasons — had foregone hibernation.
“We’re really happy that we were able to accomplish so much with these winter patrols,” says Tuguldur. “We learned a lot more about Toson Hulstai’s biodiversity, and we also were able to protect it like never before.”
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Jake Cohen is a conservation writer at The Nature Conservancy.November 23, 2011