Sugar or a One-Eyed Horse

On the far western edge of Mongolia, in the Altai Mountains of Bayan Olgii aimag, a national park nudges the border with China. This place is called Chigertei (Чигэртэй), although it is sometimes spelled Chikhertei (Чихэртэй), which is how I read and wrote it for the few months between first hearing about it and actually setting foot there. The g-versus-kh debate is a reminder of the region’s unique cultural dynamics; the majority of Bayan Olgii’s population is ethnically Kazakh, descendants of a small number of refugees who settled in Mongolia during various 18th and 19th century conflicts with the Russians and Chinese. In 1940, the socialist government of Mongolia formed Bayan Olgii as a Kazakh aimag, creating a place where Kazakhs were allowed to maintain traditions that were more harshly curtailed in Kazakhstan itself, which was then part of the Soviet Union. Following the advent of democracy in 1990 and the opening of Mongolia to the wider world, some of these traditions became world renowned. Eagle hunting and the richly embroidered Kazakh ger hangings made for weddings are synonymous with the region. Although all official business in the aimag is conducted in Mongolian, school is taught in Kazakh, Kazakh remains the language of everyday interactions, and many families in more remote regions don’t speak much Mongolian at all. Bayan Olgii is a region where Mongolian and Kazakh run up against each other, culturally and linguistically, in interesting ways.

This is the source of the Chigertei/Chixertei mashup. Chixer means “sugar” in Mongolian, and Chixertei, roughly translated, means “sugared,” which, as a Mongolian speaker, I took to be a poetic reference to the snow that girds the Altai peaks for most of the year. Chigertei, on the other hand, means “a one-eyed two year old horse” in Kazakh. A long time ago, my Kazakh counterpart from the park administration told me as we jolted along the road to the park, there was a one-eyed two year old horse that hung out in the valley, and that’s how the place got its name. Why do Kazakhs have a specific word for a one-eyed two year old horse? Are there a lot of one-eyed horses running around Kazakh-populated areas? Is there a different word for a one-eyed three year old horse? Mongolian is like this in its precision – there are verbs to describe a calf running around with its tail in the air, or the act of tying ribbons in a horse’s mane to designate it sacred. There are dozens of words to describe the colors of a horse’s coat, and a whole herd of words to describe yak-cattle hybrids depending on the generation of hybridity. There are several words for “friend,” some of which indicate a greater degree of affection and closeness than others. There are a whole set of verb tenses that you employ to indicate how recently something happened, and how certain you are that it actually happened if you didn’t witness it with your own two eyes. But with Kazakh, I had no idea where things get specific, because the sum total of my Kazakh skills could be summed up in the two most essential phrases in any language: “Thank you” (Rakhmet) and “Are there any wolverines around here?” (Kunnu bar ma?) The exchange on the road to Chigertei served as a reminder that I was on strange ground. I’ve worked in Mongolia for 17 years and I’m used to being agile and fluent, culturally and linguistically. It felt both off-balance and also exciting to be in a place where I didn’t know what was going on 100% of the time.

Whatever direction you take the name, Chigertei appears to be full of wolverines, and that was why I was there. In May, a colleague who had set up cameras for snow leopards in Chigertei contacted me to tell me that he had gotten dozens of photos of wolverines, and would I be interested in collaborating on a project? I’d been to the Altai before as part of my wolverine quest, most recently in 2011, to interview and collect pelt samples. I’d wanted to work there on a more extensive and systematic program, but hadn’t had the time to do the most laborious preparatory task for any wildlife work in Mongolia – setting up relationships with the various authorities and finding local counterparts who were interested in collaborating. Barry Rosenbaum, the wildlife biologist who had put up the snow leopard cameras, had already done that work, so it was easy to agree. Easier still because snow leopards were my first wildlife love, the animal that had led me to the high mountainous landscapes that wolverines inhabit. Barry would be collaring in Chigertei’s sister park, Khokh Serkh, which meant that I might, if I were very lucky, have the opportunity to see an animal that held enormous personal significance.

Luck seemed to be in short supply for the first ten days after we set snow leopard snares in Khokh Serkh (the name, definitively Mongolian, means “dark blue billy goat” and refers to both the Special Protected Area and the mountain range encompassed by the SPA). The plan was to spend the first ten days of the trip collaring snow leopards, and then a week in Chigertei, 40 kilometers to the west, setting up baited wolverine camera stations. After a frigid first two days in the Khokh Serkh base camp, the weather warmed, and the Mongolians and Kazakhs insisted that the snow leopards would stay up high and away from our snares, snoozing in the sun, until the weather changed again.

Whatever the cause, the snares remained empty. The cameras we’d set up nearby yielded beautiful photos of ibex, quail, and ermine, but no sign of big cats. I was happy to be out on a snow leopard expedition, but it was mostly waiting, interspersed with the daily anticipation and letdown of heading up to the higher valleys to check the snares. The time between was spent rambling around the mountains, but there was something edgy and almost spooky about the steep, narrow, rocky valleys, dark in the scant light of the failing year. On one of our daily excursions to check the snares, my horse’s cinch strap slid back, the horse panicked, and I was thrown, dragged through a boulder field on a steep slope, and kicked twice. The damage was relatively superficial – bone bruises, a torn ligament or some other trauma in my right wrist, the most shockingly purple hoof-shaped bruise on my left buttock – but I couldn’t hike for a while afterwards, or sit on a horse, which meant several long days sitting in camp trying to figure out how to do anything useful when my only functional limb was my left arm. I was more than ready to get out of Khokh Serkh by the time we piled into the range rover and headed to Chigertei.

The land of sugar and one eyed horses was enchanting by comparison, a wide open swath of valley flanked by dramatic high peaks, the weather moving fitfully and spectacularly across the mountains and the river and the moraines left behind by recent glaciers, and wolverine tracks everywhere.

The high peaks on the western border of Chigertei Valley.

We stayed with one of the few families that winters in the valley – there are many more in the summer. The family were relatives of Yelik, our liaison at the park. His forebears had lived in Chigertei Valley for generations, he said, and pointed to a crumbling cemetery that we passed on the drive in, and said, “My family are all there. Two hundred years.” His cousin Yerlan, her husband Jaksalak, and their daughter Raya were our generous hosts, giving us space in their adobe house, renting horses to us, and regaling me with tales of wolverine sightings up and down the valley. For the first time ever in eight years of wolverine work in Mongolia, I heard stories of regular wolverine depredation on small livestock. Jaksalak told me, through translation into Mongolian by our ranger Aska, that he’d seen five wolverines together in the early summer, that he’d spooked them out of a thin line of forest that ran east-west along the north-facing slopes of the valley, and that they’d fled up into one of the big bowls above treeline. Five wolverines together could only be a family, and if it was a female and her kits-of-the-year, that meant she’d successfully nursed a litter of four. When I asked where they habitually saw wolverines, Jaksalak and two fellow herders waved their hands across the valley: everywhere.

Adobe and stonework home in Chigertei

It was pointless to speculate based on unverified stories, of course, but the herders of Mongolia know their wildlife well – far better than the Americans who report wolverines in their backyards and then send me photos of porcupines or foxes – so I was inclined to believe them. The photos from the snow leopard cameras showed at least two individuals visiting the same camera station within days of each other, and returning repeatedly.  It was all very tantalizing. But we’d learn more only by doing some scientific documentation.

The first day out, back in the saddle for the first time since being thrown off, I had a hard time focusing on where I was, too busy clutching the reins and trying hard not to think about the horse slipping on the ice, kicking me, dragging me across boulder fields, snapping my neck. Then we came up over a massive moraine and stopped at a boulder covered in petroglyphs, and all the crowding fearful thoughts disappeared as we dismounted and looked at the animal figures chipped from stone ages ago. Aska opined that the figures were little wolverines; I thought they were ibex. They were probably from the Bronze Age, which, in Mongolia, extended from about 2000-1000 BCE. There are petroglyphs like this all over the country – very ancient ones showing woolly rhinoceros and ostriches and mammoths, more recent scenes of men in chariots and reindeer with the beaks of birds. Out of all of this vast, Pleistocene world, the wolverine remains like a talisman of a lost past.

Petroglyphs. Depending on which end you see as the head, you can imagine these as running ibex with curved horns, or open-mouthed, stripe-tailed carnivores.

We rode further up the moraine and came out into a side valley, walled in at its head by another jagged range of peaks. From here we went on foot up the valley, and then up an east-facing slope, walking carefully among the snow-covered large-boulder talus. Before long we crossed wolf tracks, and then, inevitably, the prints of a wolverine. They led up through the talus field onto the ridge, where they and the wolf tracks joined a well-worn game trail running along the crest of the slope.

Dukhai and Aska on the wolf and wolverine highway

We set up four cameras in that valley, all of them along the east-facing slope. The west-facing slope was sheer scree and bare of snow, steeper and higher, far less appealing as a travel route. Aska and Dukhai, another of the winter herders, guided the effort, choosing spots where they’ve seen wolverine tracks in the past.

That night the wind rose until it howled around the outside of the house. Inside, Aska practiced his English by reading aloud from the back issues of the New Yorker that I bring with me on these trips; his pronunciation was flawless, and after a a sentence or two he would tell me, in Mongolian, what he understood, and then I would explain where he’d understood correctly and where he’d gone wrong. Since it was the New Yorker, this necessitated trying to explain phrases like “pathologically incompetent president” and “hipster locovore Brooklynites,” which was both headache-inducing and also a welcome challenge to improve my Mongolian skills. Neither Yerlan nor Jaksalak spoke Mongolian, although Yerlan liked to order me to eat more of the various dishes she cooked, thus improving my Kazakh vocabulary by about 1000% in the space of 24 hours. At some point, I explained to Aska in Mongolian that the wolverine’s Latin name meant “glutton” and that it had a reputation for eating enormous amounts of meat; Yelik, overhearing this, explained to Yerlan and Jaksalak in Kazakh; and everyone began saying “Gulo gulo!” before digging in to whatever dish Yerlan put on the table in front of us. Most of the time this was besbaramak, the signature Kazakh dish, which involves most of a sheep or goat, boiled for several hours, and served with enormous flat noodles, boiled carrots and potatoes, and sometimes a side of horse sausage. Invoking the wolverine came shortly after we washed our hands and bowed our heads and lifted our palms up for a quick blessing on the food from Allah. Sometimes I ended up translating whatever I understood back into English for Barry, although I’m terrible at remembering to do this, because translation is a task that requires focus. Later that evening, Aska and I digressed from New Yorker-level topics into our mutual enjoyment of the show Vikings, discussed which characters we most liked, and chatted about Norse history and Kazakh history. There was more comfortably cosmopolitan code-switching going on in the confines of that little adobe house, under the howling wind in the remote Altai, than in any place I’ve been in a while.

The wind went right on howling, and when we got up the next morning, a blizzard was beating down on Chigertei. Aska and Yelik swore it wasn’t as bad as the snowstorm that had hit the valley a few weeks before, so with that in mind, we all put on our warmest clothes and rode out.

Parking the horses in the blizzard.

It could have been worse. It could have been a few degrees colder, the wind might have had an even sharper edge, the snow could have been thicker, the visibility even more curtailed. As it was, I could see the dim outlines of the near mountains, if I squinted into the wind and snow, and I could remind myself that I’d been far colder and more uncomfortable, once or twice, on the ski transect of the Darhad that I’d done back in 2013. It was tolerable, in other words, in the minimal sense of the word. We were riding further out that day than we had the day before, but over less tricky terrain. The conditions did not make the horse any less nerve wracking, and Yelik and I had a moment of mutual vocabulary-building when I explained that I was nervous about galloping the horse in icy and snowy conditions. “Nervous” was new to him, and I realized with shock that I’d never used that word in Mongolian before – how had I avoided having to learn it when I’d dealt with everything from ornery horses to psychotic and potentially rabid dogs to drunk herders breaking into my ger?

I saw almost nothing of the valley we reached, except for the sites where we set the cameras. Those sites emerged out of the blinding white as we stumbled towards them, knee-to-thigh deep in drifted snow, the whole landscape eerie and markerless. We left the horses behind near a stone wall enclosing a hay field or corral and waded upslope. These stations we baited with the flanks of a goat, roadkill not being an option in Mongolia as it was in the US.

Dukhai, Aska, and Yelik setting up a camera. They did 100% of the physical labor since I couldn’t use my wrist. They deserve all the credit in the world for the success of this trip.

The crew resting at the top of the slope after wading up through the snow.

Mongolian snow conditions – never fun, but somehow still entertaining.

For our pains, whatever powers exist out there granted us bluebird conditions the next day, which took us up the north-facing slopes and through the thin larch forest to the base of the massive north-facing bowls. Where these bowls narrowed, and along obvious wildlife highways running east-west, we set the last of the cameras, baited with the rest of the goat.

On the north-facing slopes at the edge of the forest, glassing for elk, ibex, and argali

Yelik and Dukhai setting up a bait station.

I stayed high up on the mountainside, walking back along the wildlife trails; Yerlan and Jaksalak’s home was perched beneath the slope several kilometers to the east, and, in a move that probably fooled no one, I pretended that wading through the deep snow at high elevations for all of that distance was super fun, because my horse – which was really Aska’s horse, he’d trained it from a colt – had been edgy all morning on the ride out. I was happy to turn him over to Aska and hike back.

Headed home.

I hit a set of wolverine tracks and followed it up into the trees, out of sight of the group of men riding their horses across the plain below. Suddenly there was yelling, a huge commotion from the men, ringing dimly off the trees. I’d followed the tracks far enough into the forest that by the time I came back out, all I saw was the group of them leading their horses back to the house. They were on foot, which was strange, but I thought that they’d gotten off for a smoke break. I arrived back maybe a half hour after they did, opening the door and ducking into the dim light of the interior, ready to prattle on about the exciting wolverine tracks, but everything inside was silent and heavy and the hair went up on the back of my neck.

Yelik shook his head and said, in English “Today was so scary.”

Aska was lying on the floor, on the rolled out thin mattresses on which they slept, and I remembered the shouting and knew immediately that something had happened with the horse. And it had; while I’d followed those tracks up into the forest, Aska had stopped to take a photo. He’d spurred the horse to catch up with the others, and the horse had hit a wind-scoured snow drift; his front legs had plunged into the snow, Aska had slid forward so that his boots jammed into the stirrups, and then slid off the right side of the horse. In Mongolia horses are freaked out by anything approaching on the right, including riders who slide down on that side. The horse bolted, dragging Aska at a full gallop for somewhere between 30 and 50 meters through a boulder field. He was kicked in the shins, just as I had been, before he got free of the stirrups.

“I thought he was going to die,” Yelik said. And then he added, “Now I am nervous.”

Aska was stoic – more so than I’d been, definitely. His shins didn’t look bruised, although that didn’t mean anything; mine hadn’t visibly bruised either, but they ached terribly, some deeper, invisible bruise in the bone. More than the physical, though, he seemed shaken up by the flashbacks; after an hour or so he asked if I had any sleeping pills, because every time he shut his eyes he kept reliving the fall. I didn’t, but I gave him some advil and told him it should help, and apparently it did, because he said that he slept fine.

That night we enjoyed a final round of “Gulo gulo” over besbaramek. The next morning we set up a final bait station just above Yerlan and Jaksalak’s home. Aska hiked up with me to set the cameras, to prove that he was okay, and then rode his horse 40 km back to the town of Deluun. Watching him ride off so confidently, I took a deep breath and promised myself to stop being such a wimp about the horses henceforth. The enormous bruise on my butt, which I surreptitiously checked the day before when I was up in the forest alone, was starting to look less black and was fading to a violent dark purple. My wrist was still a problem, but I took the improvised cardboard brace off and decided to deal with it later, even though it still hurt to, say, hold a pen, braid my hair, or scratch my back. Horse danger was a fact of life in Mongolia and you either dealt with it or you were incapacitated by your need for safety.

The rest of us rode back to Deluun in a land rover. Over the winter, Aska would rebait the camera stations as needed, and Yelik would switch out the cards in December to see which stations were receiving wolverine visits. I was pretty sure that most of the bait would be devoured by foxes, but there were enough wolverine tracks to make me hopeful. Ultimately, we wanted to identify the best places to set up a trap or two for collaring, and, if we were very lucky, find places where multiple wolverines were visiting the cameras. The only thing to do now was wait, and head back to Khokh Serkh in hopes that we would capture that even more elusive animal, the snow leopard.











Return to the Altai

A couple of weeks ago I got a call from a colleague who suggested, politely but also pointedly, that I should probably start updating this blog again. I said yes, of course, I really had every intention of doing so, very soon.

Then, when I was on the phone with my parents yesterday, talking about my upcoming travel plans, my mother, politely but perhaps also pointedly, said, “Well, maybe this trip will provide some good fodder for your blog?” And I realized that I hadn’t even posted a single update about my upcoming plans, despite the fact that they are both wolverine-relevant and also pretty exciting.

Early tomorrow morning, I leave for Mongolia to set up camera traps in the Altai for wolverines. The Altai form Mongolia’s western border with China and Russia, and contain Mongolia’s highest peaks. The glaciated landscapes of Altai Tavan Bogd National Park are breathtaking, as I was made aware when I first visited this region in 2001. That was before I was very aware of wolverines, but not before I was aware of the other compelling denizen of the higher elevations of Asia, the snow leopard. I returned to Tavan Bogd and neighboring Khovd Aimag in 2010 to conduct interviews on wolverines and other wildlife, and had some thrilling encounters and near-encounters while I was up in the mountains.

This trip is in cooperation with a snow leopard project affiliated with the Denver Zoo, which means that I’m not only camera trapping for wolverines, but may also have the chance to fulfill a 17-year-long dream of seeing a snow leopard in the wild and participating in snow leopard collaring activities. So it’s pretty darn exciting. I’m also exhausted, however, and have about a dozen other writing projects right now, so sometimes it’s hard to remember to keep this blog up to date. But my mother is probably right – as mothers usually are. This trip should be story-worthy.

More details will be forthcoming once I reach Ulaanbaatar – thanks for reading and stay tuned.



And now for something completely different – I’m eager to get out of the morass of listing politics and back to writing about the work in Mongolia. Part one of summer adventures in camera trapping.

The storm comes in fast, when we’re at 9600 feet on an exposed ridge, close to the crest of the divide between Mongolia and Russia. We’ve been toiling upwards for nearly two hours now, and I’ve made the mistake of keeping my eyes front and up, or else on my feet picking their way through the talus, and I don’t glance behind me until a small golden weasel – Mustela erminea, at a guess – pops out from among the rocks and dances around me, and I turn, following it as it does the quintessential weasel dance, circling, peering at the interloper, curious and unafraid, and as I turn, I see the sky roiling in behind us, up the valley, a veil of precipitation cloaking the mountains, snake tongues of lightning flicking across the sky, flickering among the clouds the way the weasel flickers among the rocks, and I realize that we are in trouble.

Ermine in the talus

Ermine in the talus, moving too fast to focus.

The ridge drops away sheer on either side for a thousand feet, maybe more, all the way down to a rushing stream that drains out of the big bowl whose southern rim we are climbing. The world is a palette of subdued colors; rock and snowfields and the copper and rust of vegetation just liberated from winter snows, the only vital color the golden weasel and the deep aqua around the edges of the icebound lakes far below. The valley is a dizzying distance below, and the mountain offers neither shelter nor any easy descent – it is a mountain ground down to a million pieces of mountain, an edifice of precariously balanced talus that seems ready to slide if you put a single foot wrong. The only way off is the way we came up.


Snow leopard country.

I shout up to my companions, who have not stopped to watch the weasel and who have not turned and who have not, therefore, seen the storm bearing down on us. Ulzii, the ranger, turns and I wave and point and say that we need to get off the ridge, now. Tsend, who has joined me from Ulaanbaatar as a bridge between my fairly proficient standard Khalkh Mongolian and the nearly-incomprehensible dialect of the Darhad region, comes back down a few feet, squints at the storm, and says, “Maybe it will miss us.”

“It’s not going to miss us.”

“You need to have a more positive attitude,” he admonishes me, and heads back off up the ridge.

A crack of thunder shatters the air around us and the wind rises as Ulzii and I stare in consternation at Tsend’s back, retreating up the ridge. The clouds swallow the last of the sun and the thunder booms again. I’ve been in the wilderness with a couple of people who I really admire as expedition leaders, people who display qualities of calm and cool that I would like to now emulate, as a leader myself, but that seem impossible to evoke amidst the rising panic and simultaneous frustration that threaten to overwhelm me. The rain starts then, and it turns quickly to sleet and hail. Within seconds the talus, already precarious when dry, is soaked and slippery, making the prospect of a descent even more daunting.

In a tone of the deadest calm I can muster, I ask Ulzii to go get Tsend and bring him back, but he has barely gone a few feet when I feel my heart lurch and skip, and a strange itching sensation passes along my scalp and my teeth hurt and my head spins. I put my hand to my head and look back up at Ulzii, and he is on the ground with his back against a large boulder, his face white. Behind him, I see Tsend rapidly returning down the ridge. Positive attitude indeed, I think, and flatten myself against the rocks, pushing my backpack with its metal water bottle and various electronics as far from myself as it can get without going over the edge. I’m shivering, I realize, soaked to the skin, so I chance pulling the backpack closer, and extract my winter gear – puffy jacket, down jacket, raincoat, hat – and pull them on, feeling the instant relief of warmth through my headache and the strange fuzziness of thinking that seems to have overtaken me. I’m the only one who has this kind of gear; broach the idea of emergency layers with a Mongolian and he’ll just laugh and say, “Zugeer, zugeer,” which is an all-purpose Mongolian expression that means, in essence, “It’s not a problem,” but which can also mean, “You’re being overly cautious and no descendant of Chingis Khan requires such coddling.” This is probably true; Mongolians are the toughest people I’ve ever met. Nevertheless, I worry about Ulzii and Tsend, Ulzii in his uninsulated rubber riding boots and thin jacket, Tsend in the office-wear that he has brought, cotton pants and button-down shirts and a sweater and windbreaker, neither with a winter hat. The hail and the thunder and the lightning crackle and pelt and roar around us, the cloud that is the heart of the storm enveloping the ridge. It goes on and on and on as we crouch there, growing colder and wetter and – at least on my part – counting the intervals between lightning and thunder to try to figure out whether the storm is moving away from us. It doesn’t seem to, it seems to have settled in, huddling over us the way we are huddling against the rocks. We are far up the valley, nearly at the headwaters of the drainage, the vast encircling wall of mountains that mark the upper end, and the storm hits that wall and stays, pushing at the peaks.

Finally it seems to dissipate, marginally, and we scramble down the mountain as another wall of precipitation and flickering lightning moves up the valley towards us. Halfway down, Tsend suggests that we wait and see, that perhaps this one will miss us and we can go back up, but Ulzii mutters “Ayul, ayul,” which means “dangerous,” and I’m glad that he has said it so that I can avoid speaking. My head still hurts. Later, I know that I’ll have to talk to them again about gear and about mountain safety issues – the awkward problem of the dynamic of a young woman telling two older men what to do – hopefully this time with more impact, but for now, between my aching teeth and muscles and the splitting headache, I’m glad not to have to talk.

Not until we’re back at our camp, huddled under the battered old tent fly that Ulizii has stretched between two trees, tending to a sputtering fire and trying to avoid the leaks as another round of rain and hail pelt down, do I process what happened. Ulizii and Tsend both felt it too – the lurch of the heart, the prickling skin, the burn along the edges of the scalp: lightning passing through us from a charge in the ground. The realization comes with the sense of deferred awe that people seem to experience only after they emerge from extremely dangerous situations, when the adrenaline releases its hold and the mind stutters to life again. We could have died up there.

It’s day four of a research trip to set up wildlife cameras in the most remote reaches of northern Mongolia, and I ask myself a question that I’ve asked myself many times before: is this work worth the risk?

I don’t have the right to answer this question for my companions, but they’ve made it clear that they want to be here and understand that it’s potentially dangerous. For myself, the answer remains the same: Yes, it’s worth it. And we’ll be back up that mountain tomorrow, even though, looking up at it from our camp, I have the uneasy sense that it’s not finished with us yet.


Trying to keep the fire alive back at camp in the post-lightning deluge.


Notes From High and Beautiful Country

I’m struck anew at how this country seems to resist rapid movement by any conveyance other than horseback.

After an amazing ten days in the field setting up camera traps, I’m briefly back in Murun, the capital of Hovsgol Aimag. The trip down from the Darhad took three full days, most of which involved waiting around for vehicles, and the rest of which involved crawling along through mud and ruts at about 10km per hour while sitting in Russian vans – the world’s most uncomfortable motorized contraptions.  As we are not a fancy organization with a huge budget, however, we go by local transport.

And in the end, it’s worth the trouble. Working with the protected areas administration, with a grant from the Snow Leopard Network and cameras on loan from Panthera, I went back up into the country we skied last year, to set up camera stations in hopes of catching an image of the big cat whose tracks we found in the snow. One of the PA’s rangers, Ulzii, worked with me; we spent ten days hiking and riding through amazing country. I thought I’d seen the best of it during the ski trip last year, but it continues to get better with every expedition, and with more time to explore. I am at a public computer right now, unable to upload my photos or write a full piece about the experience, but the highlights included scaling multiple 10,000 foot peaks; watching a large swath of mountainside fall away in a huge rockslide in the valley opposite; getting hit by lightening (which was startling but resulted in nothing worse than exhaustion and a pretty bad headache); the sheer sense of fun with which Ulzii took up spraying perfume on rocks to create lures, and pretending to be a big cat when it came time to test the cameras; seeing elk and wild reindeer and a flirtatious and fearless Siberian weasel; finding a skull, probably a young musk deer, gnawed to shards, with a big pile of wolverine scat next to it; finding huge amounts of elk and ibex and moose sign, and even bear scat; inching along a headwall that was more a million pieces of mountain than a single mountain, ancient cracked talus precariously balanced and threatening to slide with every step; being up high in spectacular meadows ringed with snow and avalanche chutes, feeding into wild streams roiling down into hillsides covered in pale lichen and wild azalea and rhododendron, all of it underlain by permafrost; climbing up along those streams, scrambling over rocks and rapids to come out in another meadow, with a series of beautiful waterfalls, and then scrambling straight up big cliff faces (finding, in one handhold, the perfect nest of a small bird, three pale eggs nestled in the bowl) to come out on a huge plateau where you prowl back and forth, looking down at the plunging valleys all around, the half-frozen lakes below, the streams rushing down towards their rivers, and try to figure out how a snow leopard might think.

Now comes the waiting. I’m headed up to Bayazurkh, the soum to the west of the Darhad valley, to look into helping a fly-fishing company create a research plan for monitoring taimen, the 200 pound salmonids that swim the rivers here. From there, I hope to walk back to Ulaan Uul in the Darhad via the high mountains of Ulaan Taiga, the last remaining section of the Darhad mountains that I haven’t yet explored. From there, I’ll go back up into the mountains in late July to take down the cameras.

This will probably be the only day on which I have internet access until the end of July, but I plan to do a full write-up when I return – I’ve already composed a lot of it in my notebooks, and honestly it’s nice to be back to writing by hand, with a pen, and with no computer anywhere in the vicinity. Still, I look forward to getting back to writing here once I return. In the meantime, let’s hope that the snow leopard(s), the wolverines, the ibex, and the other wildlife of the Darhad visit the camera sites, so that we can learn a bit more about them and help the protected areas plan for their conservation.



A Wolverine Day in Mongolia

This morning, May 14th, I woke up to snow spiraling down onto the streets and buildings of Ulaanbaatar. It seemed like a good sign – tomorrow is the day that we use to mark wolverine kits’ departure from their dens (even though there’s some deviation in the exact timing), and snow over UB on May 14th is a sign of what makes this country a good place for gulos.

Tomorrow is also the day that a group of scientists and I will depart for the Darhad, to work with the director of the valley’s three protected areas, Tumursukh; his rangers; the provincial environmental department; and community members from two of the region’s towns, Ulaan Uul and Bayanzurkh. Our visiting American scientists this year include two employees of the National Park Service, David Thoma and Kristin Legg, and Lance Craighead of the Craighead Institute. All three specialize to some degree in planning and monitoring, and the scope of work this year is much bigger than wolverines. This year, under the umbrella of BioRegions International, a Mongolia-focused non-profit based in Bozeman, Montana, we will be working with the protected areas to think about long-range management plans, monitoring protocols, environmental problems, and possible areas for collaboration beyond basic wildlife research.

As if this prospect were not enough, I walked into Ulaanbaatar’s landmark Cafe Amsterdam this morning to find myself face-to-face with Doug Chadwick – the author of the definitive book of wolverine adventuring, The Wolverine Way – and Harry Reynolds, director of the Gobi bear research project (Chadwick’s recent article about the Gobi bear project is here.) At this point, Cafe Amsterdam has hosted more American wolverine enthusiasts than most places in the US.

Later in the day, I finally had the opportunity to meet Dr. Lhagvasuren, one of the senior scientists at the National Academy, whose enthusiasm for wolverines and wildlife research was immediately apparent. He ran through the things he’d heard about wolverines in his years of work in the countryside: that they were sent by god to keep the world clean, that they were very powerful, that people were wary of them for that reason. He said that some people were reluctant even to touch a wolverine pelt, because of the power of the animal. They were not bad animals, exactly, but they had powers. He said that if you messed with a wolverine, if you harmed or killed one, it would come back and take revenge. We were speaking English, and when I asked him whether “god” meant Tenger, the Sky, or Erleg Khan, the king of the underworld, he paused and then said, “Probably both. I think both.”

Back at the apartment, I sorted through a suitcase full of automatic cameras that the park rangers and I will use later this summer to try to catch a glimpse of the Darhad’s snow leopards – and also, of course, the wolverines. Checking the settings on the cameras, I felt a sudden lightheaded, tremendous desire to find these animals again. It’s been a while since I’ve updated this blog. Winter was difficult and the wolverine work was on hiatus. But since I arrived in UB three days ago, the momentum has been building, a reminder that wolverines are indeed powerful, and that once you engage with them – even in the most benign ways – they have their claws in you and you are obligated to them. So here we go, again, into the wilds of Mongolia, in search of the great and powerful wolverine.



Snow Beasts

I first went to the mountains of Hovsgol, Mongolia, in 2001, as a volunteer on snow leopard track surveys sponsored by the Mongolian government and the International Snow Leopard Trust. With two fellow Peace Corps volunteers and a Hovsgol National Park ranger, I spent nine days in the Horidol Sardag, the range that arcs along the southeastern curve of the Darhad, searching for snow leopard sign and for evidence of the snow leopard’s primary prey species, ibex and argali. At that time, American-style wildlife research in Mongolia was still in its infancy, and although the local community had reported snow leopard presence in the mountains around the Darhad, the international scientific community hadn’t been able to confirm these reports. They were still searching, throughout the country, for population nodes of the big cats and their prey.

The Horidol Sardag left me in awe. It was the first time I had traveled across an expanse of country for nine days without encountering anyone outside my own party. The place felt vast, and empty of human influence, and therefore whole and connected in a way that I’d never experienced before. It wasn’t that the country was unpopulated – it was the awareness of the fact that people had lived here for thousands of years without wrecking the place. The landscape had presence, a kind of quiet awareness that seemed nearly conscious in its intensity. We never found the snow leopards, nor any sign of argali; the only evidence of ibex was a worn old skull lying in the middle of a dry drainage up high. But we heard wolves at night, and saw elk and ptarmigan and deer. And the sense of awareness and watchfulness I attributed in part to the presence of snow leopards, somewhere beyond our sight, because predators lend electricity to a landscape, even when you can’t see them. By the time the survey was over, I’d developed a fascination with the species, because they lived in the mountains and were solitary and wide-ranging and tied to the snow and cold. These were all characteristics that I admired.

At the time, I was unaware that there was another unseen mountain beast running around in the Horidol Sardag. When I started talking with wolverine biologists in 2006 about a potential project in Mongolia, I was struck by the similarities between wolverines and snow leopards. These similarities made it easy to expand a fascination with snow leopards to encompass wolverines as well. One of my initial questions – still a topic of interest – involved possible interactions and competition among snow leopards, wolverines, and wolves. Another, of course, has to do with the vulnerability of snow leopards to climate change, and whether that vulnerability is as acute as that of wolverines. There are other hypotheses as well. Much as I love wolverine work in the US, the prospect of being back in mountains that contained snow leopards and wolverines fueled a large part of my drive to start working in Mongolia.

In 2009, I began interviewing herders and hunters throughout Mongolia, searching for information on wolverines, which had never been formally documented in the country. I took a packet of animal photographs everywhere I went, because I didn’t want interviewees to know exactly which species I was interested in. I would pull out the cards and ask people to sort the pictures into piles, representing animals that lived in the area, and animals that did not. Pooled over several interviews in a single region, trends began to emerge. One particularly interesting trend came from the interview data in the Darhad: people persistently reported snow leopard presence. The scientific community still hadn’t verified presence since the surveys in 2001, but hunters insisted that snow leopards were around. So did Tumursukh, the director of the Darhad’s three protected areas, when I spoke to him last September about the prospect of a wolverine camera project in the region. He was enthusiastic, not only because of wolverines, but because he was sure that the cameras would turn up evidence of snow leopards, too. The IUCN depicts the area as containing a “probably extant” resident population, so the perception that there were as-yet-scientifically-undetected snow leopards in these mountains was widespread.

IUCN range map of snow leopards showing a probable resident population in northern Mongolia.

IUCN range map of snow leopards showing a probable resident population in northern Mongolia.

The data trends regarding wolverines were interesting as well. Interviewees sometimes used the word hovor (“rare”) to describe the species, but many of them referred to wolverines as  elbeg (“abundant”), especially during the winter months. All of them told me that if I came back when there was snow on the ground, I would definitely find tracks. They described the tracks as being all over the place, and easily found.

This didn’t entirely make sense. Wolverines are never abundant; they’re naturally rare, even when the landscape is saturated. But part of the impetus for doing wolverine work in Mongolia stemmed from initial, relatively vague reports that Mongolian wolverines might be doing things differently from their kin in the rest of the world. I didn’t want to dismiss anything, no matter how odd, so I added several hypotheses to the running list, and discussed, with the project’s scientific advisor Jason Wilmot and with Mongolian colleagues, the option of doing a series of transects while snow was on the ground, to see if we could get some kind of bearing on whether wolverines in the Darhad were elbeg, hovor, or somewhere in between. We saw this as a prelude to a more in-depth study.

That was the inception. Now I’m going to skip to the end, with promises to fill in the middle soon.

We ended up doing the track survey with a team of five Americans, sponsored by National Geographic. I would have preferred to have at least one Mongolian on the team, but the logistical realities, and the difficulty of finding someone with adequate ski experience, precluded this. We set out in late March, and skied until late April, covering approximately 230 miles, with resupplies managed by the multi-talented Mishig and the rest of the equally talented team at Boojum Expeditions. This was my first long expedition, so there was plenty of learning for me. But they were, in a way, my mountains; I’d traveled around in them in bits and pieces over the course of twelve years, and they felt comfortable.
Living in the cold, camping in the snow, and bundled into layers of warm winter clothing, we became snow beasts of the Darhad too.

And our experiences matched those of my Mongolian interviewees – there were wolverine tracks everywhere. I remain stunned by how many tracks we detected. Even though I have high confidence in the accuracy of the information I obtained from the interviews, I did not anticipate finding tracks every day – but we did. I’m not going to mention any conclusions here, but my mind is spinning, in a good way. It’s been spinning too fast to write anything for the past few weeks, but the pieces are finally starting to fall into place. It’s an exciting feeling.

Our experience also aligned with those of my Mongolian friends in another way. Twelve years after my first trip through the Horidol Sardag, I finally saw snow leopard tracks in the mountains of Hovsgol. Skiing over the high, barren, and beautiful country at a place called Utrag Pass, I suddenly felt that electricity again, the sense of presence. A few minutes later, I paused at a set of strange tracks that moved across the crusted snow in a way that said “cat.” Jason and two other expedition members ended up documenting them as I skied on ahead, the victim of a heavy pack that necessitated continuing so that I could make adequate time. The tracks were fresh, and they were definitely not lynx, the only other big cat in the region.


Forrest McCarthy, the expedition’s official adventure-geographer, skis across the high country of Utrag Pass.

When we got back to Ulaanbaatar, I sent the track photos to friends who work on snow leopard projects elsewhere in the world. Fellow expedition members did the same, and the photos went out to a variety of experts. They all verified the ID. Panthera, the renowned big cat conservation organization, generously arranged the loan of some cameras to deploy this summer, in conjunction with a camera-trap training for Tumursukh and the park rangers.

I am excited about this snow leopard mini-project, but there’s a peculiar tension between the two disciplines in which I work. As an anthropologist, I trust the accuracy of the information that I receive from Mongolian herders and hunters, and I know that no matter what kind of background I bring to my work here, I will never know as much about the environment and wildlife of the region as they do. Full credit goes to the community of people who have kept these wildlife populations on the landscape and who understand them far better than I ever will. I have no aspirations to participate in an outmoded colonialist narrative of heroic European “discovery” of things that local populations consider common knowledge. It would be deeply unethical for me, or anyone else living in the 21st century, to generate such absurd and self-aggrandizing stories. My role is as a facilitator, and I see myself as a perpetual student of the people with whom I work, requesting that they teach me what they know, and bringing that knowledge into dialogue with the scientific community.

I’m also a scientist, though, and that makes it difficult to ignore the standards of science when it comes to research. To the global wildlife community, snow leopard presence remains unconfirmed in the mountains around the Darhad. Science operates on the model of visible material evidence, and this is what will be required to finally prove that snow leopards are up there. And as exciting as a single track is, it doesn’t meet scientific evidentiary standards even for distribution, let alone residency. Just as a single wolverine track sighting in Nebraska would not confirm the presence of a breeding population in the state, the detection of this track tells us nothing except that a single animal was there, once. It may have come from Russia, it may have come up from the Khangai in Central Mongolia, it could be a lone dispersing male. It’s hard to keep from giddy excitement, and from making sweeping but scientifically inaccurate claims about ‘proof’ of an unknown population, but such claims would be premature and amateurish. It’s time for steps that will offer verification. I will be heading back up to the Darhad this summer to try to get photos, and to try to determine the prospects for figuring out whether there is a resident population.

If we do confirm presence, I will also be thinking carefully about how to make sure that we tell the story as a narrative of continuity and reinforcement between the vast knowledge of the Mongolians with whom I work, and the precision and material evidence required by the scientific community. This is not about western scientists coming in and generating new knowledge, because the knowledge is old. It’s about bringing this old knowledge into a new light, focused through a slightly different lens. This is important not only from an abstract ethical point of view, but also because the fate of the Darhad’s wildlife will be in the hands of the people who live there, and they must have ownership over the process of protecting it. This means inclusion in and credit for the process of knowledge explication and scientific dialogue, rather than dispossession from that process by outsiders. This line is difficult to walk, but scientists have to find their footing within this territory, even if it’s a challenge.

Of course, wolverines remain the focus of my work, and the same standards of community engagement apply there. I also have cameras from the Wolverine Foundation; combined with the snow leopard cameras, we’ll be able to cover a substantial region. Cameras placed in the high country have as much of a chance of picking up gulos as they do of picking up snow leopards, and I will be working as closely as possible with rangers and other community members to make sure that they are engaged in the entire process. Most of all, though, I am excited to be headed back up into those mountains for another round of trying to track down the Darhad’s snow beasts.

News from the Wider Wild World

I’m working on the remaining posts about my experiences in Oregon, but a time crunch and the unexpected arrival of a wolverine kit in my life have meant that I’ve had less time than usual to write for this blog.

Okay. He’s not really a wolverine kit, he’s my roommate’s 20 month old son. But if ever a human child embodied the wolverine’s ability to wreak havoc in enclosed spaces, this kid is it. Much like Jasper and Banff in the PBS documentary, this child climbs people and furniture, plays with power cords in potentially life-threatening ways, and destroys everything left in his path. He does better when he’s taken outside and exercised, which is how I’ve been spending the time I would normally spend writing. This is fine, for a limited time, and I really like this child, but it has certainly validated my decision not to have kids. So for now, I’m going to be lame and simply post links to a couple of interesting but random wildlife stories that have appeared recently.

First, another piece about snow leopards, and the work of Rodney Jackson to preserve these beautiful animals in mountain ranges from Mongolia to the Himalayas. Snow leopards and wolverines probably share habitat in Mongolia, and learning more about their interactions will be interesting as my work in Mongolia goes forward. Jackson employs a number of techniques that I admire, including working closely with communities and adopting a humble rather than a “foreign expert” role in those communities.

For subscribers to High Country News, a new article highlights the effects of climate change on snowshoe hares in the Rockies. The piece focuses on the work of Scott Mills of the University of Montana, as he tracks 30 collared hares through Montana’s Seeley-Swan Valley. He and his team are trying to figure out how camouflage and color shifts work in hares, and what diminishing snow cover has in store for the species. If color shifts are triggered by changes in day length, then there will be a lot of white hares on bare ground in the fall and spring as snow comes later and leaves earlier. If color shifts are triggered by weather and temperature, on the other hand, then the hares might possess a range of adaptive options and might face less threat as climate change accelerates. Some of Mills’ data suggest that the latter scenario might be the case. I’m amazed and kind of delighted to learn that we still don’t know how color changes work in any of the numerous species that use this strategy. Once in a while, I enjoy a nice, positivist puzzle, and this one could turn out to be particularly interesting.

E.O. Wilson, in book chapter entitled “Two Magnificent Animals,” wrote that he particularly admired wolverines. I’ve written about this, but I never specified that the second magnificent animal of the chapter title is the pitchfork ant, one of the world’s rarest ant species. The blog’s focus on wolverines leaves little room to consider other species, but I agree with Wilson’s opening words on the pitchfork ant:”This is how I see living species: masterpieces, legends.” So I was pleased to learn a little about Oregon’s lesser-known threatened and endangered species, species that share ranks with the wolverine but aren’t (yet) fortunate enough to have a broad-based constituency.

About 25,000 years ago, people in what is now the Czech Republic buried several dogs, apparently wedging a mammoth bone into the mouth of one of them so that the dog would have something to play with in the afterlife. In the beginning of the 21st century – which will be remembered as the era in which it became acceptable to carry tea-cup sized canids to the grocery store in a purse, and in which the quality-of-life of  American dogs surpassed the quality-of-life of humans in many other parts of the world – the discovery of these burials is big news. I like dogs, so I was interested in reading the article on its own terms, but I was especially interested to note that wolverine bones were also found at the site. Further information about the wolverine bones isn’t easily available, but I may go looking through the archaeological literature in hopes of finding out more.




National Geographic article