To say that Mongolia has a conflicted relationship with wolves would be a massive understatement. While they hold strong cultural significance and spiritual power in traditional beliefs, they have been hunted and persecuted with zeal for centuries. Mongolia is still a culture built around herding livestock so you can imagine the reception it gets when we try to convince people that wolves are an important part of the ecosystem and should be protected just like the takhi. Although we learned the Mongolian word for wolf while working there we were warned not to even use the word around herders and to use a euphemism instead, in case we would invite the wolf into their herd by speaking its name. When souvenir shopping in Ulaanbaatar it is very hard indeed to find a depiction of a wolf that doesn’t show it with bared and bloody fangs or being chased by herders. It is easier to find an actual wolf pelt in a tourist shop or being sold by the side of the road. It is not difficult to understand the point of view of the herders whose livelihoods depend on their sheep and goats.
An exciting new avenue of research that is opening up at Hustai Nuruu national park (where we work on the wild population of Przewalski’s horse (Equus ferus przewalskii) is a large multispecies collaborative project with Mongolian and international researchers. We are currently tracking takhi and a team from Senckenberg Museum in Germany are tracking nomadic Mongolian gazelle (Procapra gutturosa). By tracking predators, prey and scavengers simultaneously in the same ecosystem that is intensively monitored by a large staff of rangers we can effectively create a large scale laboratory for answering questions about how the ecosystem functions and how the key species interact with each other and their environment. To this end, Minnesota Zoo and SCBI will be tracking grey wolves (Canis lupus) in Hustai while a Mongolian NGO (Wildlife Science and Conservation Centre of Mongolia) will be tracking cinereous vulture (Aegypius monachus) which are abundant scavengers in the park. It is not unusual to see more than 20 vultures on a single carcass (mostly cinereous but also a few Himalayan griffon vultures (Gyps himalayensis). In future we hope that the staff at Hustai will be able to collar red deer (Cervus elaphas).
In May we spent a rather dispiriting 3 weeks attempting to catch and collar wolves with no success, even with the expert help of the rangers and our visiting wolf trapper with his spectacular beard and 40 years of experience. We spent a lot of time setting and resetting traps and lures, walking the length and breadth of the park searching for prints, scat or fresh kills, to little avail. Not to be deterred, we returned in September with refined methods and a range of different stinky things as lures to catch wolves before and during the horse collaring trip. My colleague from Minnesota Zoo and another visiting wolf trapper endured the worst of the rain and the cold before I got there but they managed to collar two wolves, one male and one female. I showed up in September with pockets full of hot chocolate sachets and a pile of juggling balls to bring some good cheer and just in time to collar a third wolf, another male.
The wolves are already showing interesting movements (including risking the wrath of herders by raiding the flocks of sheep outside the park). In the last few days we heard that our Mongolian collaborators have had similar success and tagged two vultures in Hustai. We are already seeing some overlap in their movement patterns in a tantalizing glimpse into what promises to be an exciting data set. Hopefully this multi-species project will help us develop a really rich understanding of how the takhi fit into this ecosystem and the roles played by the wolves, the vultures and other grazing animals.