Going West

Ulaanbaatar this year is unbearably hot. Taking shelter from the worst of yesterday afternoon’s heat, my friend Marissa, her friend Ganhuyag, and I sat in a tsainii gazar – a ‘tea place’ – off Enkh Taivan Avenue, sipping cola, working our way through plates of Mongolian food, and talking about life in western Mongolia.

Ganhuyag grew up in Hovd Aimag, one of the Mongolian provinces that follows the curve of the Altai Mountains south from Siberia. Along with Bayan Olgii Aimag to the north, Hovd is a frontier, where Mongolian shamanic and Buddhist culture encounters Muslim Kazakh, and where communities of Uriankhai – ethnically Tuvan – linger in pockets tucked away beneath the high peaks.

In 2001, a fellow Peace Corps environment volunteer who was serving in Bayan Olgii watched a wolverine chase several argali across a mountainside in Tavan Bogd National Park, the region of high peaks nestled against the very furthest western tip of the country. Last year, rangers in a protected area in Hovd saw strange prints in the snow; thinking that they were tracking a baby bear, they followed them, and sighted a wolverine. The spine of the Altai from the Gobi north contains, according to Jeff Copeland’s snow model, large stretches of late-spring snow, and some of the higher peaks are glaciated. The cliffs and high pastures are home not only to livestock, but to abundant marmots, pikas, argali – the world’s largest wild sheep – and ibex – a large wild goat. Altogether, it should be good wolverine habitat.

Over our plates of tsoivan and guliash, however, Ganhuyag explained that after our meeting a few days previously, he’d called his family and his wife’s family, who still lived out in Hovd, and asked them about wolverines.

“This animal is finished in the West,” Ganhuyag said, “In the Khangai, in Hentii, in Hovsgol, there are still some, but in the Altai, they aren’t there anymore.”

But they used to be there?

Yes, but they weren’t anymore. His father-in-law, who was a great hunter, suggested that maybe the wolves had killed them off, but maybe people had killed too many, or maybe they had reacted to changes in herding practices or reduction in wild prey, or any number of other factors. But yes, in the past, this animal had been around.

At our first meeting, Ganhuyag had told us a story about a wolverine killing an adult yak in his family’s summer camp when he was a child. Now, he added a story about his father having seen one in the 1970’s near a town that was well into the arid Gobi-Altai region. It added further fuel to the speculation that Mongolian wolverines are (or were) either abundant enough to send out dispersers to very marginal habitat, or are in some way adapted to survive in different conditions than wolverines elsewhere.

As we talked further, this time about pikas and their sensitivity to climate change,  Ganhuyag mentioned that his family’s summer pasture had always been snow covered into early summer when he was younger, but that since he had left for college, in the late 1990’s, the pastures had been bare of snow from spring on.

I couldn’t help following multiple chains of speculation: that if Mongolian wolverines were actually just normal wolverines, snow dependent for denning, the reduction in snowpack would mean that they would be retreating into higher areas, further from human observation (or were simply being knocked off the map altogether.) That if Mongolian wolverines were not, by some twist of adaptation, snow dependent, and they really were diminishing in number in the Altai, there was probably a mortality source that was too great for them to bear, and that source was most likely – but not absolutely certainly – human.

We chatted further with Ganhuyag and made arrangements to travel out to Hovd to visit his family at their summer pasture and talk to them about their perceptions of wildlife and the changing environment in the Altai. From there, we would travel north to Bayan Olgii, stopping en route to talk with Kazakh and Mongolian herding communities, and seeking out a group of Uriankhai, a group renowned for their hunting skills, at a sacred mountain in Tavan Bogd National Park.

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