Mongolia

Could the Gobi Desert See a Red Deer Comeback?

Reintroducing the endangered species to the famous desert is about more than wildlife conservation.

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Could the Gobi Desert See a Red Deer Comeback?

Uranchimeg Tsogkhuu, GPJ Mongolia

Tuvshintogtokh Norov, a ranger with Umnugovi province’s Department of Environment and Tourism, raises red deer calves in the Gobi so they can be reintroduced into the wild.

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DALANZADGAD, UMNUGOVI PROVINCE, MONGOLIA — In southwest Mongolia, the end of the Altai Mountains gives way to one of the world’s most unique and majestic landscapes: the Gobi, whose sandy and rocky desert plains and dramatic steppes stretch across much of the southern part of the country.

The climate is extreme, with temperatures falling as low as minus 30 degrees Celsius in winter and soaring as high as 38 degrees Celsius in summer (a range of minus 22 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit). Yet even in these harsh conditions, the Gobi is full of life. In Umnugovi province, shrubs and grasses support a wide variety of wildlife, from lizards and birds to gazelles, rams, ibex, leopards, foxes, wolves and bears.

Historically, the Gobi also was home to the red deer, scientists and scholars say — as evidenced by the discovery of antlers and the presence of petroglyphs that depict them. But Mongolia’s red deer population has declined dramatically, from an estimated 130,000 in 1986 to only around 10,000 today, due to hunting and environmental degradation brought about by herding and climate change. Today, the remaining deer are scattered throughout Mongolia’s forested mountains and steppes, including the Altai Mountains in the west, the Khangai Mountains in the center of the country, and the Khentii Mountains in the northeast.

Now, environmental groups and local officials in Umnugovi province are working to revive the country’s deer population and to reintroduce the animals to the Gobi. In July, 10 red deer fawns were transported south from the forest steppe of Khustain Nuruu National Park, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) west of the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, to the western mountains of Umnugovi province, says Punsantsogvoo Tumurbaatar, a specialist in the province’s Department of Environment and Tourism.

There, the deer — five males and five females — devour animal feed and drink water in a fenced-in paddock each morning, then play around, bobbing their heads up and down before leaving the paddock to graze in a field.

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Uranchimeg Tsogkhuu, GPJ Mongolia

Tumenjargal Ochir, who is married to ranger Tuvshintogtokh Norov, helps feed and water the deer.

Chuluuntsetseg Sain-Aldar, a student of environmental rehabilitation at the Mongolian University of Life Sciences, has spent months helping to feed and care for the fawns. “Initially, it was challenging to get the fawns used to cow milk and to feed them from a bottle,” she says. The animals now drink it greedily.

After about two to three years, the deer should be strong enough to survive on their own. At that point, they will be reintroduced into the wild.

“It seems that my fawns get accustomed to the Gobi and can eat its pungent plants,” says Tuvshintogtokh Norov, a ranger with Umnugovi province’s Department of Environment and Tourism, as he pats one.

The work of reintroducing the red deer to the Gobi is part of a larger national effort to help revive Mongolia’s deer population. In 2000, the government approved the National Program on the Conservation of Red Deer, officially placing the deer on the country’s endangered species list. As part of the program, the government has placed restrictions on hunting and approved conservation programs like the one underway in the Gobi.

“If those animals fled their historical area for some reason, but if there still is vacant space for their return, it should be our job to expand the range for their reintroduction,” says Samiya Ravchig, a consulting professor at the National University of Mongolia.

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Uranchimeg Tsogkhuu, GPJ Mongolia

Once the deer reach 2 to 3 years old, they will be released into the wild.

Relocating red deer to the Gobi isn’t simply about returning the animals to their historic territory, though. If the deer remain concentrated in certain areas, the herds will be at risk of disease, Samiya says. Therefore, creating new herds in more parts of the country will help protect the species overall.

In order to make the Gobi more hospitable for wildlife like the red deer, scientists and engineers also have been working to increase the amount of food and surface water available in the region. Governmental and nongovernmental organizations have been working to protect that region’s small springs, and have distributed hay in the mountains during periods of heavy snow or drought. Since 2017, officials have built 17 solar-powered wells across the Gobi to support wildlife.

But reintroducing the red deer to the Gobi is motivated by more than just environmentalism. Umnugovi province is one of Mongolia’s most popular tourist destinations, according to the Ulaanbaatar Tourism Department, with visitors coming to experience firsthand the Gobi’s dramatic landscape — and its wildlife.

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“Foreigners imagine Mongolia through the Gobi,” says Batbold Dorjgurkhem, Mongolia director for the World Wide Fund for Nature (an international nonprofit that remains known by its old name, the World Wildlife Fund, in the United States and Canada). Mining, agricultural production and environmental degradation brought about by climate change threaten this fragile ecosystem. Protecting the Gobi is therefore an essential element of promoting Mongolia abroad, Batbold says.

Local officials are creating two new nature preserves with the goal of attracting tourists, one that will support migratory birds and another for desert animals.

If tourists want to see forests and taiga, there are plenty of places in the world they could go, says Samiya, from the National University of Mongolia. But the Gobi is unique, and placing more emphasis on wildlife conservation could help further boost tourism revenues — even if that means cutting back on other economic activities, such as mining and farming.

“Everything should not be for the good of the people — we have to coexist with animals,” Samiya says. “But this situation has been lost. Environmental protection is the work of protecting nature from people for the sake of one’s future destiny.”

This has many anticipating the return of Mongolia’s red deer.

“It is fully possible,” Samiya says, “to create a wave of tourism to visit the Gobi to see wild animals.”

Uranchimeg Tsogkhuu is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Mongolia. Contact her on Twitter and Facebook or via email.


TRANSLATION NOTE

Otgonbaatar Tsedendemberel, GPJ, translated this article from Mongolian.