National Geographic Today
One of the world's last great grasslands occupies a remote, undisturbed 90,000-square-mile (225,000-square-kilometer) region of Mongolia called the eastern steppe, between China and Russia.
More than one million Mongolian gazelles live on this vast steppe. Like Africa's Serengeti Plain, it hosts its own spectacular, albeit less predictable, gazelle migration in summer and fall.
Now, though, the Mongolian government plans to build an approximately 1,600-mile-long (2,600 kilometer) cross-country superhighwaythe Millennium Highwaythat would slice through the steppe, at unknown risk to the gazelle migration. Conservationists and biologists worldwide have rallied to minimize the new road's potential environmental impact.
"This is the largest intact temperate grassland in the world," said George Schaller, a field biologist and director of science for the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York. "You can drive a hundred miles [160 kilometers] or more without seeing a fence, building or herdsman." The eastern steppe is almost ten times the size of the Serengeti Plains.
"Nowhere else in Asia can you see a herd of 30,000 gazelles," said Kirk Olson, a doctoral candidate in wildlife ecology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and a colleague of Schaller. Olson has lived on the steppe for the better part of the last four years.
Mongolia is just slightly smaller than Alaska, with a population of only 2.5 million. But civilization is pressing in on the domain of the gazelles.
"Large-scale farming on the eastern steppe, annual culling of gazelles, increased poaching arising from easier accessand just more peoplerepresent a much more significant short-term threat to the herds," said Darius Teter, a programs specialist at the Asian Development Bank in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.
The Mongolian government recently instituted a moratorium on culling the herds. But poaching may still result in the death of more than 80,000 gazelles per year.
There is a lot of hunting by the Chinese and Mongolian border guardsbut it is something one never sees directly, says Olson. "All you see are big spotlights at night in the distance and next day the area is covered in piles of guts."
"This [80,000] could be a sustainable harvest, but until we know many gazelles there are, we'd better err on the side of caution," Olson said.
The superhighway itself doesn't threaten the gazelles as much as the fences, walls and development that would follow.
SOURCES AND RELATED WEB SITES