The Return of Nokhoi Zeekh

Last year, wolverine biologist Jason Wilmot, pika biologist Embere Hall, and field assistant Tuul joined me on expeditions in search of climate-sensitive wildlife in Mongolia.  We tracked wolverines in the Altai mountains, scoured talus fields for alpine pikas in the Khangai Range, and interviewed herders and hunters everywhere about the complex Mongolian relationship with wildlife. We learned an incredible amount about species that had seldom or never been studied in Mongolia. We had some fabulous cultural experiences (sharing tea in family gers, learning about Mongolian horsemanship, playing volleyball with enthusiastic children), and some we probably could have done without (being awakened at 2:00 a.m. by drunk herders insisting that we consume a liter and a half of vodka with them, discovering in the middle of nowhere that Mongolians don’t always carry enough spare tires, breaking down in the middle of a river and frantically bailing water out the windows while the engine refused to restart and the van threatened to tip over.) On the whole, it was a great summer, and we covered a lot of territory.

The Mongolian snow and temperature map, showing areas with late spring snowpack 1-7 years out of 7 (yellow), and regions with maximum August temperatures less than 22C. Thanks to Jeff Copeland for use of data from his paper, 'The bioclimatic envelope of the wolverine (Gulo gulo): do climatic constraints limit its geographic distribution?' Canadian Journal of Zoology, 2010.

This summer, I’ve returned to Mongolia to pick up where we left off, continuing the quest to learn more about Mongolia’s climate sensitive species, and about wolverines – nokhoi zeekh, to Mongolians – in particular. Transitioning from a full time job saving tropical forests to the full time adventure of trying to track down one of the world’s most rugged species in one of the world’s most rugged countries is, as it turns out, somewhat mentally exhausting, but after two weeks of recovery, of easing the mind from Khmer to Mongolian, and of meeting with various other wildlife biologists, I’m ready to set out again. On Monday I leave for ten days in the Darhad Valley of northern Mongolia, conducting further in-depth interviews with hunters and shamans in the region. From there, it’s on to Myangan Ugalzaat Protected Area in Khovd aimag, where a mother wolverine and two kits were camera-trapped last August. Lydia Dixon, a colleague from Wyoming, will join me in late July to explore the dimensions of wolf-livestock conflict and wolf symbolism in Mongolian culture. We will probably travel to Khentii aimag, the last place on the Mongolian snow map that I haven’t visited, and then on to Ikh Nart Reserve in the Gobi, to look at their research and ecotourism projects as an example for our own work in the future.

Last year we sought to refine our understanding of wolverine distribution in Mongolia, assessing whether the species is present in areas represented on the snow map and in areas from which we had reports but that weren’t on the snow map. We verified, through pelts, fresh tracks, and the detailed information provided by interviewees, that wolverines are present in all three of the ranges we visited. In the Altai, we also verified through interviews in non-wolverine habitat (eg, areas that aren’t on the snow map) that wolverines are not usually seen at lower elevations, and that they are widely perceived to be a creature of high altitude snowfields. Likewise, in the lower reaches of the Khangai, tales of wolverines were less frequent, although not entirely absent. In the Darhad, however, hunters reported wolverines at far lower elevations than predicted; ecologically, the region is part of Siberia, and the higher reaches of the mountain ranges seem nearly devoid of prey, so perhaps certain factors push wolverines to the margins of the steppe-forest interface here.

Collecting cultural information on wolverines was another important objective of last year’s work. Wolverines carry none of the symbolic importance of wolves, they aren’t considered a delicacy like marmots, and unlike bear or musk deer, they aren’t worth huge amounts of money in China. Mongolians referred to them as heregui amitan, which literally translates to “an animal that isn’t needed,” a useless species. Disappointing as this is to those who might wish for a wealth of folktales and spiritual implications, the worthlessness of the wolverine is probably a blessing. People don’t hunt wolverines proactively, killing them only if their dogs tree one, or one is caught in a marmot or wolf trap. Wolverines don’t have medicinal value and their fur isn’t in high demand. A species hoping to survive in the ever-decreasing margin between human population footprint, economic demands, and climate change couldn’t wish for more, at the start of the 21st century, than to be unnoticed.

This year, in returning to the Darhad, we’ll collect more detailed information on harvest rates and distribution within a bounded area. In Myangan Ugalzaat – which is far to the south, nearly on the border of the Gobi Desert, and which is the only protected area in Mongolia to specifically refer to wolverines in its management plan – we will assess the possibility of working with rangers to set up a camera grid for a multi-year project. In Khentii, we will conduct the basic interviews that we have done elsewhere in the country, to see if breeding populations are present. From this summer’s work, we hope to focus on one region for the next several years. Much as I enjoy the excuse to travel around a country I love, it will be a relief to sink into a single place for a while, and to spend a little less time peering at the road map and wondering whether the roads from one critically important, farflung place to the next actually exist, or whether they are just a cartographer’s wishful thinking.

I probably won’t have too much opportunity to update this blog until mid-July, so check back then for news about wolverine work in Mongolia and beyond.

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