On September 5th, two hunters showed up in Narantuul Market in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia with wolverine pelts for sale. One of the pelts was large and healthy-looking, in full winter fur with the lateral stripe a striking pale cream against the dark brown; the other, perhaps an older pelt or perhaps killed during summer, was smaller, the pelage less lush, the markings less distinct, with missing tufts of fur. Both had been stretched on frames; the holes used to tie the pelts flat were visible. Both pelts were purchased by women in the tourist and antiques section of the market; one pelt was casually draped over a rail among a number of other furs, and the other was displayed center stage next to the skin of a bear cub. The hunters, cash in pockets, disappeared back into the bustle of Narantuul without any indication of where they were from or where and when the wolverines had been killed.
On the afternoon of the 6th, in the midst of packing for my 11:00 pm flight back to the US, I took copies of the document I’d made on distinguishing bear paws from wolverine paws, and ran down to Narantuul to distribute them to the stall-keepers. I was shocked that two wolverine pelts had appeared in the two days since I’d last been there; I’ve never found wolverine products in Narantuul before the paws. The asking price for a pelt was 30,000 tugriks. Most hunters had told us they got about 10,000 tugriks for pelts sold to hatmakers. The bear cub pelt was 300,000 tugriks, and the woman pointed out that since it still had its paws attached, it was worth the price.
On the reverse side of the paw document, I’d listed a series of questions that I hoped that stall-keepers might be willing to ask of hunters who wanted to sell them wolverine products. The questions were straightforward: where, when, and why was the wolverine hunted? Was it male or female? Was the animal in good condition when it was killed? Along with a small clipping of fur and skin, I was asking the stallkeepers to record and submit this information to an intermediary while I was out of the country. The likelihood that they would do so was slim, but part of the purpose of the project was to build ties within the fur trade networks in order to understand how it operated and attempt to obtain genetic samples from pelts of known provenance. I explained all of this to the two ladies who had the pelts, and they agreed to record the information in the future, although they said that wolverine products didn’t come in that often.
A different man was tending the stall with the wolverine paws, and, playing ignorant, I asked what kind of paws they were. He, like the previous man, told me that they were bear paws, but when I told him that they weren’t, he quickly confessed that he knew that they were wolverine feet. This was troubling, but we had a friendly discussion and he too agreed to record information from wolverine hunters who approached him in the future.
Working with wolverine hunters and fur traders has been one of the most ethically confounding objectives of the project in Mongolia. Early in the project, I’d established a rule that we would never pay for any wolverine product and that if payment was given to anyone for any services attached to the project, it had to be directly connected to live wolverines on the landscape. I didn’t want to create a perceived demand for dead wolverines, which seemed, so far, to be fortunately undervalued in comparison to the rest of Mongolia’s wildlife. If increased attention was to be drawn to wolverines, it had to be done in a way that was tied to placing value on live animals.
Poised against this commitment was the difficulty and expense of obtaining viable genetic samples. Taking into account all the project costs associated with our work in North America, a single wolverine DNA sample in the Rockies represented thousands of dollars worth of time, effort, and equipment. Jason had already challenged me earlier in the summer to explain thoroughly to him and to myself why I would pass up an opportunity to get a sample from a pelt if the hunter was asking 10,000 tugriks to allow us to take the sample, or if the hunter refused to let us take a sample without buying the entire pelt. It had been a difficult and interesting discussion, balancing the demands of science against an understanding of social and economic systems, and trying to work out where the greater need and the greater benefit to our work might lie.
In the end, fortunately, all the discussions were academic, and I was never faced with a situation in which people asked for money for samples. The women in the market on my last day in Mongolia were happy to allow me to clip small pieces from the edges of the pelts; their only question was, “Why are you so interested in this animal?”
“Because they’re amazing, and tough, and I like the places they live – like Mongolia,” I said.
The women smiled and agreed that Mongolia was a great country, and said they hoped to see me back there next year. I hope to be back again next year too.