A Conservation Mission in Mongolia
Join Gala Davaa, conservation director for The Nature Conservancy's Mongolia program, in the wild, rolling grasslands that define his country's environment.
Were you interested in science as a child?
I was born and grew up near one of the most spectacular mountains of Mongolia. I grew up collecting firewood from the forest, getting water from a crystal-clear mountain spring and trapping small mammals. As a teenager, I hiked to high peaks following ibex trails. As I appreciated nature more, I wanted to learn more about it. Many years later, I was employed at one of the largest conservation projects in Mongolia and I decided to study science. It was a time of transition — we were switching from a centrally planned economy to a market economy — and Mongolia lacked trained scientists to plan and implement conservation. I hoped that I could help people to manage our natural heritage in sustainable ways in the face of rapid changes.
Has your life ever been at risk on the job?
In the winter of 1996, I was in the field to observe gazelle rutting behavior. The tents were not warm enough at night, when the temperature dropped to about -30° C, so we had to spend nights in cars. Our car was fully covered by a canvas to keep the engine from freezing. The car was parked next to an old broken house to shelter it from the cold wind. The driver was periodically letting the car idle to keep the engine functioning, but the wind and canvas were pushing carbon monoxide back into the car. The driver eventually fainted with the engine on. I was sleeping in the back of the car with another colleague, and I fainted too. When I woke up my colleague was pulling me out of the car. Luckily he woke up at the right time and managed to save our lives.
Can you give people who’ve never been to Mongolia any insight into why it’s such a spectacular place?
Everywhere you go you find incredible natural beauty. The most remarkable wildlife I’ve seen in my life has been the large herds of nomadic Mongolian gazelles. I have seen tens of thousands of them moving across the vast landscape. Where on Earth can you see that many ungulates at once these days? I’ve seen the gazelles migrate more than once, and it’s truly phenomenal each time.
You grew up in rural Mongolia and have obviously seen it change a lot during your lifetime. What do you miss from your youth? And where do you see the country going?
The changes are overwhelming, unimaginable, even. Society, politics, values — everything has changed. Many people say Mongolia is at a crossroads. As larger mineral deposits are discovered, development increases rapidly. But planned mining development in Mongolia could have devastating impacts on the environment I grew up in. When Conservancy leaders met the President of Mongolia in 2007, he asked if we could help Mongolia to balance development with nature. Achieving that balance will depend upon many factors, including good governance, public participation and corporate social responsibility. I hope that Mongolia will benefit from its mineral wealth while maintaining its cultural and natural heritages.
Born in sparsely populated western Mongolia, Gala Davaa developed a passion for protecting the wild, rolling grasslands that define his country’s environment. With degrees from Central European University/Manchester University and the Yale School of Forestry and a fellowship with the Conservancy’s Colorado program, Gala’s international conservation acumen has allowed him to play a key role in confronting the developmental issues that threaten Mongolia’s ecosystems.