Mongolia Highway Will Threaten Gazelles, Critics Say

Bijal P. Trivedi
National Geographic Today
March 20, 2003
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 superhighway—the Millennium Highway—that 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 access—and just more people—represent a much more significant short-term threat to the herds," said Darius Teter, a programs specialist at the Asian Development Bank in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

Poaching Thrives

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 guards—but 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.

"The minute you put up a fence you're going to face the issue of overgrazing like in the American West, and gazelles won't be able to migrate," Schaller said. "So careful planning is essential."

The Millennium Highway represents just one link in a proposed Asian highway network designed to promote tourism and trade. One preliminary plan calls for the route to traverse "a strictly protected area" called Nomrog in easternmost Mongolia.

Nomrog's mountainous topography and birch forests set it apart from anywhere else in the country. Schaller fears that opening up Nomrog to the superhighway would lead to similar intrusion into other national reserves.

An alternative route favored by conservationists would redirect the road through Choybalsan— a provincial capital and the only major population center in eastern Mongolia—then snake just inside the Chinese-Mongolian border, avoiding pristine steppe grasslands along the way, and entering China before reaching Nomrog.

Erratic Migrations

"This route would cause less environmental havoc," said Teter. "But I can't understand why a cash-strapped government would plan such a massive undertaking anyway, rather than upgrade the existing west-east road network which actually connects population centers."

To provide guidance for a route that sidesteps the timeless, trackless path of the gazelles, the researchers are studying the creatures' habits—and habitats.

Olson has been surveying 950 miles (1,500 kilometers) of transects of the steppe in spring and fall. "I cross dirt roads every now and then, muddy basins, and every 100 miles [160 kilometers] or so I come across nomads in their ger [the traditional round tent, also called a yurt]," he says.

"I drop in and say hello and explain what I'm doing. These guys are happy to tell you where they found gazelles or vice versa."

Olson, Schaller and their colleagues catch gazelles and collar them with mini-transmitters that operate for up to a year. So far they have tracked 100 gazelles and collected more than three years of data about their movements.

In the summer gazelles move northwest, and then reverse their path in late summer and fall. "But it's not cut-and-dry," Olson said. "The gazelles don't really stick to this." Another population of gazelles winters on the Russian border in the north and summers in the south.

"Gazelles need the entire area to keep their traditional travels," Schaller said.

The researchers aren't sure what influences the direction of migration. Olson is taking soil and vegetation samples to figure out what would draw the gazelles to a particular area.

"This is the time to protect and manage the eastern steppe as part of Mongolia's natural heritage for future generations," Olson said.

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