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Moving Forward in Mongolia and Kazakhstan

August 8, 2023

Mongolia, where thoughts of wild places, wild things, and of course, Chinggis Khaan (Genghis Khan) can dwell in our imaginations.

Mongolia is the 19th largest country in the world, with one of the least dense populations, about 3.5 million people. They have approximately 90 million livestock, including sheep, goats, cattle, yaks, horses, and camels. Argali has two recognized subspecies: Altai Argali (Ovis ammon ammon) and Gobi Argali (Ovis ammon darwini). A third, Khangai Argali (Ovis ammon darwini), is non-taxonomic based on horn size and distribution and is intermediate between Altai and Gogi Argali (CIC Caprinae Atlas of the World, Gerhard R Damm, and Nicolás Franco). The Altai Argali is considered the largest wild sheep in the world!

Mongolia is just finishing a 2-month large-scale argali survey. This is the first time in 10 years that Mongolia has done such a survey. Dr. Amgalanbaatar, Mongolia's premier argali expert leading the survey effort, invited wildlife biologist Kurt Alt, Wild Sheep Foundations' International Programs lead, to participate in the survey effort.

Last year WSF funded travel to bring other Central Asia biologists to Kazakhstan to participate with the Kazakhstan Wildlife Foundation biologists, our Central Asia Affiliate, in their spring survey. Kurt invited two wildlife biologists with the Kazakhstan Wildlife Foundation, Orynbassar Shaimukhanbetov, and Aibat Muzbay, to join him in Mongolia. Dr. Amgalanbaatar was pleased we could provide travel costs so Kazakhstan biologists could participate in Mongolia's survey this year.

These efforts were significant in collaborating with on-the-ground surveys and essential to facilitate the development of a Central Asia wild sheep and wild goat working group. We envision this group to be entirely composed of wildlife biologists from Central Asia countries and become an expert group for Central Asia caprinae species in IUCN, USFWS, and CITES deliberations for the region.

Over several weeks, we participated with Dr. Amgalanbaatar and others in surveying six areas in the Bayan-Ulgii Province in the Altai Region, meeting with local governments, Provincial governments, and Ministry of Environment and Tourism members.

During surveys, we counted and classified Argali as to sex and age, obtaining vital statistics such as this year's lamb production, recruitment (last year's lamb survived to 1 year), and male age composition. Track routes, locations, and distribution were also recorded.

In each area surveyed, the Mongolia biologist(s) would spend time visiting and sharing data with the local herders and hunting zone manager/community chairman at the beginning and the end of each survey day. The hunting zone manager/community chair also participated in the survey in their specific area.

At one point, it dawned on us that we had six seasoned wildlife biologists, including Mongolian biologists Muchiruu Batjargal, Amgalanbaatar protégé and Mongolia Grand Master Chess Champion and retired biologist Davkharbayar, with extensive wild sheep experience from 3 countries and two continents working together on a snippet of this 2-month long survey effort.

The processes for establishing sustainable hunting quotas are sound, highly informed by science, and supported by outfitters. A key organization, the Mongolian Wildlife Alliance, consists of wildlife biologists and outfitters who agree that quotas must be based on what the resource can sustainably support. Professor Dr. Samya, one of Mongolia's most highly recognized wildlife management professors and biologists, is the board's chairman with a mix of biologists and outfitters. Their united voice is and will continue to be a strong voice of influence with the Ministry. The Mongolian Outfitters Consortium is in alignment with the Alliance, and primary board members include Zorigt Khand, Battalga, and Adiya.

Amgalanbaatar has spent his career, over 30 years, dedicated to Argali and Ibex conservation. Dr. Amgalanbaatar is the Executive Director of the Argali Wildlife Research Center (30 - biologists, lawyers, accountants, and economists) and the Mongolian Environmental Civil Council (300 Mongolian Environmental NGOS involving forestry, water, grass, mining, tourism, and education).

Dr. Amgalanbaatar is also Chair of the Argali Foundation for Game Management. This last organization raises funds to execute successful game management education with all parties involved in conservation-based hunting. This organization has an MOU with the Provincial Department of Environment, the University of Agriculture of Mongolia, and 3 outfitters to provide tuition for students who want to major in game biology at the Batchelor of Science level. Board Members include a lawyer, artist, outfitter, biologist, lecturer Univ. of Agriculture, and Mongolian Wildlife Alliance Executive Director.

The Ministry of Environment and Tourism has established the Wildlife (Game Species) Professional Council. This body suggests quotas and checks management plans for Provinces and Hunting Zones, and Dr. Amgalanbaatar is recognized as the Argali lead for the Council.

During our field efforts, we were in a portion of Mongolia where local herders, hunt zone managers, and local officials spoke primarily Kazakh. The two Kazakhstan biologists played an important role in discussions with them. Aibat often translated into English for those who did not speak Kazak, including one of our Mongolian biologists.

Our last stop was with the Ministry of Environment and Tourism. We were encouraged by Tsogtgerel, State Secretary of Ministry, and Uranchimeg Tserendorj, Director General of Natural Resource Policy Coordination Department, by their strong support for all the processes now in place and being institutionalized in Mongolia. Upon arriving home, Gray Thornton (WSF President and CEO) met with the USFWS, where the Service said they had just received all the information they had requested from the Mongolian Ministry and CITES authorities and will be moving in the next 6 to 8 weeks on processing import applications for Mongolia.

This has been one of WSF's most positive international collaborations. Like any of our North American states or provinces, there are always ways to improve, and Mongolia is constantly improving its scientific sustainable use approaches with biologists and outfitters. For example, Mongolia just implemented an auction system for all 2023 Argali and Ibex permits to increase conservation revenue. This adds a new twist, and all involved will evaluate its effectiveness. We are supporting Mongolia's sustainable use of conservation hunting and continue to urge USFWS's recognition of Mongolia's biological expertise and Mongolia's processes.

Dr. Amgalanbaatar will be finalizing his report over the next few months. This report will provide the baselines for moving forward with next year's permit levels and permit distribution. His recommendations will go through the Professional Council to the Ministry. Dr. Amgalanbaatar and Mongolia's overall effort is what we call in the profession "The Art of Wildlife Management".

I came away with a profound respect for Mongolia wildlife biologists and their expertise, and continue to be exposed to Central Asia biologists, including those in Kazakhstan, who are as good as any I have worked with in over 40 years as a wildlife biologist.

Kurt Alt - WSF Conservation Dir., MT & International Sheep & Goat programs

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