The mountains around the Darhad Valley are likely one of the strongholds of Mongolian wolverines, and most of our fieldwork will take place in this region over the next couple of years. To the east of the Darhad, separated by the Horidol Sardag range of the Sayan Mountains, is Lake Hovsgol, the vast expanse of water that Mongolians refer to as Dalai Eej, the Mother Ocean. At the southern tip of the lake, the town of Hatgal hosts the central administration of the regions’ several protected areas, including Lake Hovsgol National Park, the Horidol Sardag Protected Area, the Ulaan Taiga Protected Area, and the Shisged River zone. Ulaan Taiga and the Shishged were designated this year, and encompass nearly half our proposed route for the upcoming spring 2013 ski trip; the Horidol Sardag is also on the route. The presence of so many protected areas – particularly the two new ones – rendered some face-to-face diplomacy with the protected areas’ director necessary, in the interest of getting permits and of guaranteeing the long-term viability of capacity building exercises with rangers and the community. So last week I found myself in Hatgal, which I had last visited ten years ago on a snow leopard research trip. I was interviewing about wolverines around the southern part of the Lake, but securing good will from official quarters for gulo research was the larger objective.
Meetings and interviews went well, and I also spent a few days out in the relative wilderness on the east edge of Dalai Eej. The habitat here is much lower than that to the west of the lake, but for years we’ve heard unconfirmed secondhand reports that wolverines are living and breeding over here. Five interviews conducted over several days suggest that this opinion is widely held by people living on the east side of the Lake, although I didn’t see any pelts and the one woman who told me she had one showed up the next day with what turned out to be a manul (Otocolobus manul, also known as a Pallas cat.) I had the opportunity to interview one of the Lake Hovsgol park rangers, as well as several older people, who seemed somewhat better informed and who identified wolverines from among the assorted pictures that I carry with me. The evidence was ambiguous but there are rumors of more concrete proof – more on that to follow.
I spent the last night of my brief trek in the home of a shaman, and when I left, his wife gave me a bag of aruul, “to eat on the road.” Aruul, which is dried yogurt sometimes mixed with flour and sugar, is sustaining, but also potentially tooth-cracking and monotonous. It’s also heavy. When I reached the last small pass leading back towards Hatgal, I climbed up to the ovoo, the shrine to the Owners of the area, and left three pieces of aruul and a roll as a thanks for the safe trip. I was lighting incense when I noticed that the roll had disappeared. The culprit soon put in a second appearance, and then a third, and then a fourth, as it efficiently made away with the shaman’s aruul. It was a smile-inducing end to the trip, and a reminder that sometimes the little wildlife is just as interesting as the bigger and more impressive sort.
On that note, I am going to be taking a break from this blog for the next week or so. I have to do some writing about Mongolia and conservation issues in a broader sense and so, like my friend the vole, I’m holing up and remaining incommunicado until I get some of my ideas sorted out. I will be updating my other blog, which deals with Mongolian conservation and culture; I’ll post a link to that once I start working. This blog will resume regular updates soon.