This blog has been quiet for the past few months because I’ve been in Mongolia for the summer. I served as a Peace Corps volunteer here from 2000-2002 and have been spending the past three months brushing up on my language skills in anticipation of returning here to do PhD work. Wolverines haven’t been far from my mind, however; Mongolia is a blank spot on the global map of wolverine knowledge, and I’ve been asking around in an attempt to find out a little more about the population here. Below is an excerpt from my Mongolia blog, detailing the search around Kharkhorin, the town in central Mongolia where I served as an ecology teacher. Purevnambar and Dagimaa are two of my closest friends in Kharkhorin, and have been incredibly helpful in asking people about wolverines.
The mountains around Kharkhorin aren’t, by American standards, wolverine territory. In the US Rockies, wolverines stick to high altitude regions, because wolverines are snow dependent; female wolverines den in the snow, and the kits are ready to emerge in mid-May, which means that they require the safety of a series of snow tunnels until then. Without deep snowpack that lasts at least that long, wolverines cannot raise kits successfully. Wolverine biologists suggest that you can map the occurrence of wolverine based on spring snow depth; Kharkhorin and the low mountains of the eastern Khangai fall far outside of the range of adequate spring snowpack. So does most of the rest of Mongolia, with the exception of the Altai and the Altai-Sayan ranges far to the north and the west, and the peaks around Otgontenger, in the western Khangai. The eastern Khangai, with their larch-forested northern slopes and their bare, sun-baked southern slopes, heavily occupied by herders – at least seasonally – hardly seemed like a place to look for traces of the animal. But people kept insisting that they were there.
Purevnambar claimed to have seen two wolverines together in the mountains outside of Kharkhorin when he was younger. He described the animals accurately, and as we were flipping through a book on mammals, he identified a picture of a wolverine. He also said that an older male relative, a hunter, had shot several wolverine and, if we could get him to talk – “He spends a lot of time drinking these days, and not so much hunting” – he might be able to provide some information. Baasan, the head Lama at Erdene Zuu, said that one of his monks had a friend who had shot a wolverine in Bat-Olzii, to the south of Kharkhorin. Other friends in Kharkhorin described an animal that could have been a wolverine; the discussions were lively and occasionally heated, but I was still unsure about the terminology – were they really talking about wolverine, or were we discussing badgers? The conversations tended to go like this:
“Нохой зээх уулнд байгаа уу?” – Are there any нохой зээх in these mountains?
“Нохой зээх уу? Аймаар догшнн амьтан!” – Нохой зээх eh? That’s a frighteningly ferocious animal!
“Does it live around here?”
“Oh, sure – they’re plenty of them, they’re all over the place.”
Wolverine are never “all over the place;” we’re talking about a wide-ranging, solitary, highly territorial carnivore, not some kind of herd animal. This can’t be right. They have to be talking about badgers.
“So, this нохой зээх that we’re talking about – what does it look like?”
“Sort of smaller than a dog, but bigger than a fox. It’s brown, and it has a stripe.”
Yes, this sounds like a wolverine.
The interviewee holds up his hand, “It has a print like a human hand – same size, and five toes.”
This is also accurate.
And then he adds, “You see them out on the steppe.”
This seems like badger, and we are right back where we started.
I was so perplexed by the terminology confusion – a confusion which was confirmed and amplified by another researcher, a forester with an interest in wildlife, who had also been asking people about wolverines (or badgers?) – that I finally made a series of picture cards of all the large carnivores and weasels in Mongolia, without labels. I took them with me when I went back to Kharkhorin, and whenever we started talking about wildlife, I pulled them out and asked people to sort the cards into piles of “animals that live around here” and “animals that don’t.” The otter, the smaller weasels, the badgers, the bear – all went into the “not here” pile. The wolverine and the snow leopard consistently went into the “they’re around” pile. Residents of Kharkhorin identified them as present, and so did members of an ail, or herding group, far to the southeast of Kharkhorin, out in the genuine steppe country. A low range of forested hills were the only thing that might have provided adequate shelter to wolverines in this region, and when I climbed to the top of these hills, I could see the dunes on the fringes of the Gobi in the distance. Wolverine in this country seemed improbable, but with the picture cards, evidence was mounting that terminology wasn’t an issue after all – that is was my assumptions that were getting in the way.
Back in Kharkhorin, Dagimaa told me that she and Purevee had been asking everyone about wolverines, and one of their relatives had a pelt. He was willing to bring it over and show it to me. We called him, and the next morning Luvsandavaa and his wife showed up at Dagimaa’s. We sat around the table and drank tea. I’d seen them leave a pelt in the hallway, and in the brief glimpse before they came into the house and shut the door, it seemed like a wolverine. Luvsandavaa explained that he had killed the animal in January of 2008, about 30 km north of Kharkhorin, while he’d been hunting wolves. He’d seen it and shot it, he wasn’t looking for wolverines but if one crossed his path, he’d certainly take the opportunity. They preyed on lambs and kids, did I know that? The herders didn’t like them. Yes, they killed livestock regularly and yes, he knew herders who had lost smaller animals to wolverines. This animal that he had shot was a male, it had been incredibly fat and healthy when he’d skinned it out. No, he hadn’t kept the skull or the meat or any of the bones, there was no use for them. Wolverines were used only for trimming hats or other clothing. No, there were no stories or legends that he was aware of – this animal was secretive and therefore didn’t play a big role in the minds of most Mongolians.
“Secretive? So they’re rare, then?”
He shook his head. “No, they’re abundant. You just don’t see them.”
He’d shot another wolverine about a decade ago, and he knew of other hunters who had shot them more recently, one within the last year. They were common in the Khangai once you got a little way from Kharkhorin. No, he’d never seen them traveling together, they were always alone. They ate meat, of course – why was I asking that question, wasn’t I a wolverine researcher? Hadn’t I ever seen their teeth, their claws? He added that he liked their feet – their feet were huge, like a camel’s! So much bigger than you’d expect from a small animal.
Would I like to look at the pelt?
By now I knew for sure that he was talking about a wolverine – the references to the livestock depredation, to the huge feet, made me certain – so the pelt, as confirmation, was simply icing. It was large, untanned, the paws still attached, the claws gleaming white, a piece of bone protruding from one leg, the bullet hole in the flank large enough to poke a finger through. The white chest patch was minimal, the strip on the side dark and indistinct. It was, irrefutably, a wolverine. We photographed it from all angles, and I snipped a piece of hide and put it in a paper envelope to keep it dry and safe for potential DNA analysis.
All of those references to нохой зээх were, then, truly references to wolverine. They really did appear to be abundant, or at least widespread, in regions of Mongolia that were far off the snow map. There are plenty of simple explanations for this – healthy populations in core areas sending out young dispersers to less ideal habitat, for example – but the larger questions are still there: How does an animal that is emblematic of wilderness survive in an ecosystem that, although sparsely populated, is highly engineered by human activity? Not “how” as in “I don’t believe it’s actually happening,” but “how” as in “what are the Mongolians doing right that allows this creature to persist? What are the characteristics of landscape use and hunting practices, in conjunction with natural factors, that create this widespread population?” And then: “Will wolverine be able to survive in the face of increasing threats, particularly global warming?”
I hope to be back here next year to begin to find out.