How to Find the World’s Least-Known Animal in the World’s Most Sparsely Populated Country: A Beginner’s Guide

Mongolia is not for the timid.

Neither are wolverines.

Put the two together, and you have a situation that requires a degree of focus, brazen inventiveness, and raw physical and mental strength, contemplation of which is enough to inspire doubt in even the most self-confident, let alone a shy and introverted writer.

I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Mongolia from 2000-2002, serving in the town of Kharkhorin in Ovorhangai Aimag, in central Mongolia. When I first met Jason Wilmot and his wife Kate in 2006, the thing that caught my attention about wolverines was the fact that there was an unstudied population in Mongolia, and that Jason and Kate expressed the ambition of going to Mongolia and studying this population. I’d vaguely known that there were wolverines in the mountains when I was a volunteer, but I’d been much more interested in the more high-profile snow leopards and wolves; nokhoi zeekh, as the Mongolians called wolverines, weren’t on anyone’s radar. But over the course of our first meeting in a remote mountain valley in Wyoming, as Jason enthused about wolverines and I enthused about Mongolia and Kate stated with absolute certainty, “We’re going,” it seemed far too great a coincidence to allow inaction.

It took three years, but in 2009, I returned to do some preliminary interviews and to take a language class to dust off old skills. In 2010, we received enough funding to allow Jason to travel to Mongolia to participate in a pilot survey as we build relationships with the Mongolian academic and herding communities. I’m writing from Ulaanbaatar; Jason will arrive in August. In the meantime, I’ll be traveling through other parts of the country conducting further interviews, and working on a second component of the project, looking at pikas with a wildlife biologist from the Teton Science Schools, and trying to determine whether any of Mongolia’s four pika species are responding to climate change in measurable ways, as America’s pika populations appear to be doing.

The project is incredibly exciting, but also overwhelming. How do you find a wolverine in Mongolia? How do you establish a long-term monitoring agenda that takes into account the knowledge – and needs – of the local communities with whom you’ll be working?

Logically, of course, the answer is to begin with the communities. In the US, if you want to find a wolverine, you need a general idea of where it might be, and then you need a helicopter, some snowfields that will hold tracks, and someone in the helicopter who is reliable enough at track id that their assessment can be trusted. Flying a mountain range, you can determine presence and start to create a rough map of where you might set up a monitoring or trapping operation. In the US, wolverines and humans lead largely separate lives in very separate places; American culture is a culture of lowlands and valleys, and so helicopters become necessary to cover large swaths of high altitude terrain that are inaccessible and seldom visited by humans.

In Mongolia, the land is saturated with human presence. Hypothetically, humans and wolverines are sharing habitat – not just in cases of occasional human recreation, as in the Rockies of the US and Canada, but in a real and thorough way. Mongolians are making their livings in high altitude pastures, and they’re doing it, in many cases, in a movement pattern that imitates the wolverine’s seasonal movements. In technical anthropological parlance, Mongolians in mountainous areas practice transhumant pastoralism – they move to higher altitudes during the summer, and lower altitudes during the winter, and they are outside with their herds every day. So the chances of regular encounters with wolverines are much greater among Mongolian pastoralists than among even the most adventurous of mountaineering Americans. In this situation – so my hypothesis goes – you should be able to pinpoint wolverine locations with a high degree of accuracy, simply by talking to people who are in the habitat.

Of course, this remained to be proved. Two weeks ago, we set out to put the theory to the test, and headed West to Mongolia’s fiercest mountains, the Altai.

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