Tuesday, December 06, 2005

ENV: Mongolian Extinction Crisis

In Mongolia, an 'Extinction Crisis' Looms
By JOHN NOBLE WILFORD, The New York Times, December 6, 2005

ULAN BATOR, Mongolia - On a highway west of this capital, roadside signs advertise marmot, fox and other wildlife, and stacks of skins stand on display. In open markets, traders conduct a gritty commerce in furs and hides, much of it illegal. Similar markets flourish elsewhere in Mongolia, especially along the border with China.

If the good news in Mongolia is the gradual comeback of the Przewalski wild horses, the disturbing news is the diminishing numbers of other wildlife, under relentless siege by overhunting and excessive trade in skins and other animal products.

A new study of wildlife, one of the country's most distinctive resources, has revealed alarming declines in most species, especially in the last 15 years. By some estimates, the populations of endangered species - marmots, argali sheep, antelope, red deer, bears, Asiatic wild asses - have plummeted by 50 to 90 percent.

The only other possible exception to the woeful trend, conservation experts say, is the apparent increase in wolves. That is hardly welcomed by herders. If the animals wolves prey on become scarce, these predators can be expected to become a greater menace to livestock, and there is reported evidence that this is already happening.

"The country is facing a quite extraordinary and unnoticed extinction crisis, or at least the threat of one," said Peter Zahler, assistant director for Asia at the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York.

The conservation society, with financing from the World Bank, conducted the comprehensive study of Mongolia's wildlife and concluded, "There is near unanimous agreement among hunters, traders and biologists in Mongolia that continued wildlife trade at the volumes reported is unsustainable."

In August, biologists, international conservation specialists and Mongolian government officials met here to review the study's findings. Participants, the conservation society reported, cited numerous shortcomings in the laws and the management and enforcement practices that contribute to the problem. They also said that corruption existed "at all management levels."

Even though the Mongolian Constitution declares wildlife to be a common resource of the people, the society's investigators found that the government had made only feeble efforts to regulate trade and control hunting.

A draft report of the study, "The Silent Steppe: The Illegal Wildlife Trade Crisis in Mongolia," was circulated recently. It noted that the country's independence from the Soviet Union, in 1990, "was the undoing of Mongolia's century-long effort to control wildlife trade." Once on its own, the country's "economy halved, inflation skyrocketed, incomes fell to near zero and store shelves emptied."

Under the circumstances, the report continued, "virtually everyone was looking for a way out of this sudden poverty and, for many, wildlife, now unprotected, provided the answer." Hunting for subsistence and income increased. Illegal trade in meat and other animal products proliferated.

"Neighboring countries, especially China, have been the happy recipients of this new stream of wildlife product, consuming millions of animals every year and generating uncounted profits," the report said.

The investigators determined that more than 250,000 Mongolians, out of a population of 2.6 million, are active hunters. The wildlife trade is conservatively estimated to exceed $100 million a year, which does not include sales of game meat and traditional medicinal products derived from animals. Nearly all the trade is illegal.

James R. Wingard, a Montana lawyer who specializes in conservation law, spent much of this year directing the study.

He and students at the National University of Mongolia conducted more than 3,000 interviews with hunters, biologists, government officials and wildlife traders, known here as "changers." With Dr. Zahler and other experts, he also examined the available research reports on animal populations, their reproduction and growth rates and the environment's carrying capacities for the individual species.

One morning, Mr. Wingard stopped at several roadside trading establishments outside Ulan Bator. They had large warehouses behind high wooden or concrete fences, but they did not conceal the nature of their business. At one place, a sign with bold black words read like a menu: marmot, goat, cow, horse, deer and fox.

"They know about our project," Mr. Wingard said as he walked over to speak with one trader. "They are very, very open in talking with us. The animals may be illegal to hunt, but once the animal enters the market, there's virtually no control."

Last year, for example, the government imposed a ban on hunting marmot, a rodent with behavior similar to that of prairie dogs and once plentiful in burrows everywhere on the plains and in the hills. Yet marmot fur still shows up on the market, fetching $10 each. The Chinese, Mr. Wingard said, stitch marmot fur in with sable in making what they sell as sable coats.

A marmot census cited in the report showed that the animals, which once numbered 40 million, had dropped to 20 million in 1990 and fewer than 5 million in 2002, a decline of 75 percent in only 12 years.

"If this trend continues, soon you're going to see an ecological crash," Mr. Wingard said.

The prospects are even more alarming for other species. In the last five years, the saiga antelope has declined from more than 5,000 to fewer than 800; the saiga horn is prized in China as a traditional remedy. The red deer population has fallen 92 percent in 18 years, and the argali, the wild mountain sheep with handsome spiraling horns, are down 75 percent in 16 years.

One of the rarest animals in the Mongolian mountains is the snow leopard, and its survival is endangered. Though the trade is difficult to track, investigators said they found 17 fresh leopard skins in a small border town in China, apparently poached in Mongolia. Last summer, Russian border guards confiscated 13 Mongolian skins.

The Gobi bear, a small animal related to the brown bear and known to exist only in a corner of the desert here, may be beyond saving. Dr. Zahler, of the conservation society, said that as few as 25 were left.

"The bears appear to face numerous potential threats, ranging from lack of food and water to inbreeding and fragmentation of the few remaining breeding adults," Dr. Zahler wrote in an earlier research report.

At the International Asiatic Wild Ass Conference, held in August at Hustai National Park in Mongolia, biologists and conservation experts expressed concern over the diminishing numbers of the animal known here as the khulan. It is one of only three species of ass left in the wild; the others are in Africa and different parts of Asia.

The khulan, smaller than a horse but larger than a donkey, used to be a familiar sight even in the Gobi Desert. No one knows how plentiful they were, but a 2003 census numbers them at 20,000. Scientists at the conference said that overhunting and recent bitter winters are probably causing a net loss of khulan population of 10 percent a year.

Petra Kaczensky, a wildlife biologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany, said, "We see signs of poaching throughout the national parks," which are supposedly protected lands closed to hunters.

Christian Walzer, a biologist at the veterinary college of the University of Vienna, said the attitude of the Mongolian people, though understandable, was an impediment to regulating khulan hunting.

"They don't want there to be more khulan and don't want them to disappear," Dr. Walzer said. "They worry about the grazing competition they give their livestock. If my livelihood depended on my sheep and their pastures, I wouldn't look with favor on a thousand wild ass showing up at my door."

The herders also hunt the khulan for meat, either to eat or to sell in town. Mr. Wingard said meat processors in Ulan Bator were doing a thriving business making sausage out of wild ass meat.

Over dinner in Ulan Bator - hold the sausage, please - Mr. Wingard assessed the situation: "This is the least populated large country in the world. So it's not habitat loss or fragmentation that is the big problem. It's unregulated wildlife trade."

He said the sheer size of the country made it unrealistic to police hunting strictly, and some of the rangers also are involved in poaching. He suggested that local communities must be given clear incentives to support enforcement of hunting laws and bans. Of greatest importance, he said, the government must enact and enforce tougher legislation intended to curb demand by controlling trade in animal products.

"There seems to be a growing political will to do something about it," Mr. Wingard said. "If you could control the trade, you could have the Africa of Asia here, as far as wildlife is concerned, and then the tourism associated with wildlife, as in Africa."

And the problem is not confined to Mongolia. In "The Silent Steppe," Elizabeth L. Bennett, director of the conservation society's hunting and wildlife program, wrote, "The single greatest threat facing many species of wildlife across the world today is hunting for commercial wildlife trade."

1 Comments:

At 11:55 PM, Blogger ross said...

there is a systemic problem here in mongolia. the taxation system allows virtualy unfettered trade without efective taxation, exept through registered busineses with bank accounts and controlled sale points for produce. until the government's income base is expanded dramaticly there is no hope of even paying policing officials a sufficient wage to reduce their need to survive on corruption. while most traffic violations are paid for on the spot with no paper documentation or reciept for the fine paid and the amount of fine levied being arbitarily decided upon the person's apparent ability to pay, the outward signs of corruption remain and no one here expects the police to behave any differently. the wild life situation is way downstream as are all conservation issues where a quick tax free buck is involved. Ross Smith , Ulaanbaatar Mongolia.

 

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