In some ways, wolverines may be the luckiest animals in Mongolia. Our interviews this summer made it clear that of all the country’s wildlife species, wolverines are considered among the least valuable and the least interesting. Culturally, this is disappointing – it would have been great to discover a trove of fascinating stories and beliefs. But from a practical standpoint, the fact that Mongolians consider wolverines heregui amtan, ‘useless animals,’ is of endless benefit to the animal itself. During our interviews, hunters and laymen alike listed the value of animal parts for the Chinese and domestic medicinal trade: musk deer, bears, lynx, snow leopard, elk, are all worth several months’ salary, and some species are worth more than most Mongolians make in a year. A wolverine pelt, by contrast, is worth 10,000 turgriks – about $7. In a country where the gap between rich and poor is growing exponentially and access to cash in the countryside is limited largely to illegal resource extraction – mining, logging, and hunting – to be worthless is to be fortunate.
So yesterday, when I caught sight of a familiar but disturbingly disembodied paw on display at a stall in Ulaanbaatar’s massive Narantuul Market, I experienced a moment of icy panic. What was a wolverine paw doing among the various medicinal bits and pieces of vultures and bears? I tour Narantuul regularly when I’m in UB, precisely to keep an eye out for wolverine pelts or parts, and I’ve never found any before.
“What’s this?” I asked the stall-keeper, hoping against hope that he wasn’t going to state that there was some powerful medicinal use for wolverine feet.
“It’s a bear paw. From a little bear.” He used the words that translated literally to “little bear” (jijigiin baagai) rather than the word for bear cub (bambaruush); I wasn’t sure if he was trying to specify that this paw came from a small sort of bear, or whether he was just using simple Mongolian on the assumption that I wouldn’t have the vocabulary to understand animal-specific terminology. Another terrible possibility loomed: most people we talked to this summer did in fact perceive the wolverine to be a member of the bear family. People were either shocked or flat-out didn’t believe me when I explained that it was a large weasel, and only when I pulled out the recently published Guide to Mongolian Mammals, which states in Mongolian that “The wolverine is the most extraordinary member of the weasel family,” did people accept that it wasn’t a bear. The implications of the medicinal connection hadn’t occurred to me, but now, suddenly, the possibilities for disaster were clear.
I held the wolverine paw, considering carefully, and then I said, “How much is it?”
“Sixty thousand tugriks.” This was about $46, and would have been a reasonable price for a bear paw within the parameters of Mongolian trade. Bear paws, I’ve been told, are used by women who experience difficulty during pregnancy; supposedly rubbing the paw across the belly relieves pain and calms the fetus. There may be other uses as well but this is what people have consistently told me.
The man and his son were watching me hopefully. I turned the paw over and traced the distinctive chevron shaped pad, the thick hair between the toes, and the toe bones sticking out of the foot. I turned it back and rubbed the clean white claws, so like a cat’s claws and so unlike the massive, blunt claws of a bear.
“It’s not a bear,” I said.
“It’s not?” The man seemed truly surprised, and I figured that he probably wasn’t trying to pull a trick. He took it from me and looked at it.
“No, it’s a wolverine. You know wolverines?”
“Wolverine? Oh, yeah, that animal….”
“Yes. This is a wolverine foot.”
“It’s a small bear,” he repeated uncertainly. His son took the paw from him and looked at it.
“No, I’m sure it’s a wolverine paw, actually. See the way this thing is shaped?” I pointed to the paw pad. “This is different from a bear. And the claws are different too. This is definitely a wolverine.”
“How do you know that?”
“I’m a wolverine biologist.”
His son looked up. “This is your profession?” he asked. He was about 11, but clearly had an appreciation for the chance involved in a wolverine biologist showing up when they happened to have a wolverine paw for sale.
“Where did you get this?” I asked.
“Just from some guy who came to the market and said they were bear paws.” The father leaned over, rummaged around under the stall, and pulled out a plastic bag. Three more paws nestled inside in a tangle of hair and bones and scraps of dessicated flesh.
“You don’t know who he was or where he came from?”
“No. But usually these kind of things come from Hovsgol.”
While the father dealt with another customer – an older woman interested in vulture heads and feet – I chatted with the son about what a wolverine was and why I was interested in them. When I mentioned DNA studies and asked if he knew what that meant, he said, “Yeah, you can tell whether it’s a male or a female, right?” Another surprise for me, but a pleasant one. Explaining things like DNA stretches the limit of my Mongolian language skills; it’s so abstract to people in the countryside that it tends to undermine the rapport that’s built on the basis of a shared interest in concrete things like an animal’s behavior and appearance.
After the vulture lady left, I asked if I could take samples off the paws. The father said yes, and I clipped pieces from each paw. As I was leaving, his son chased me down several stalls away to tell me that they’d found another paw in another bag. I went back and took a sample from that one as well.
Last night I spent the evening typing up a guide to the difference between bear paws and wolverine paws. If my friend at the market really bought the paw thinking it was a bear, then he should know the difference. If he bought it knowing it was a wolverine paw and intending to dupe some pregnant Mongolian woman, the guide could serve to deter buyers as well. Either way, the last thing we want is a market for wolverine paws masquerading as ‘little bears’ to an ignorant urban public.