4. CULTURAL & HISTORICAL HERITAGES

MONGOLIAN FLORA & FAUNA

Mongolia‘s very different regions provide a rich diversity of flora and fauna. Because of its low population and minimal development, the country also has an amazing amount of plants and animal even tough, as in other parts of the world, many are now seriously threatened. Mongolia boasts over 3000 vascular plants and hundreds of lichens, mosses and fungi; it is also has 975 registered medicinal plants. Many species are still being discovered and classified. Some 150 species are endemic to Mongolia and more than 100 plants are considered rare or endangered. Also inhabiting its forests, steppe, desert and mountains are some 136 mammal species, 400 different types of bird, 76 fish species, amphibians and insects.


Mongolia’s flowers are legendary- and literally carpet the landscape at the height of summer. Given the country’s high altitude, many are alpine varieties: the edelweiss is prolific and used as a folk medicine; others are lilies, clematis, saxifrage, gentians, even orchids. Caryopteris are a small flowering shrub with white or blue flowers and aromatic leaves. Meadows are covered in a variety of flowers such as anemones, primulas, and delphiniums (one particular long-stemmed delphinium, a lovely young lady advised me, is called “do not forget me”), while other flowers include geraniums, rhododendrons and wild roses. One particularly are species is the snow lotus, or vansemberuu, which is found only at high altitudes and is coveted for its medicinal properties.



Mongolia’s forests are an extension of the vast Siberian taiga – the longest continuous forest in the world-and cover over 10 percent of the country, mostly of Siberian larch, a deciduous conifer, with Siberian pine, mosses and lichen at higher altitudes. The north-facing forests of the mountain steppe zones offer a mixture of larch, aspen, birch and poplar, even currants and blackberries. Unfortunately in recent years, beetle infestations from Siberia have killed off thousands of larch trees in central and northern Mongolia, including in popular Terelj National Park just outside Ulaanbaatar.


Mostly uninhabited and difficult to access, these forests are also where Mongolia’s wild animals are most prolific, especially musk deer, moose, reindeer, brown bears and squirrels. The bird life is mostly grouse, owls and cuckoos. These predators – about whom you’ll hear many stories – are why nomads always guard their flocks by day and bring them in around their gers at night, guarded by hulking sheepdogs.


The forests of the mountain steppe zone cover the lower portions of Mongolia’s three main mountain ranges and have a surprising diversity of flora and fauna, often with wide valleys and rivers lined with willow trees. The main mammals here are elk (known here as maral), wolf, roe deer and badger with birds such as partridge, kites and bustards. The forest margin and nearby steppe also support marmots , wild boar, foxes muskrats, sables, Pallas cat and a range of rodents such as meadow mice, pikas and kangaroo rats.


Living in burrows, the buck-toothed marmot (Marmota robusta ) is particularly fascinating, running madly for cover across the rolling steppe at the first sign of man. (Highly prized for their meat and pelts, the fox-sized marmots are also believed to be origin of Europe’s medieval “black plague” and hunting them is banned, theoretically anyway.) The grassy steppe is also where most of Mongolia’s domesticated animals graze, although its eastern end is largely uninhabited and is home to many wild animals such as the Mongolian gazelle, gophers and polecats.


Animal species endemic to Central Asia are found in the Gobi Desert and steppe, including a subspecies of the endangered taiga antelope, and several species of jerboa and vole. The desert and steppe are also inhabited by thousands of gazelle (Procarpa gutturosa), with small numbers of the threatened goitered or black-tailed gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa) in the western Gobi. Perhaps the rarest animal in the world with only an estimated 25 remaining, the Gobi bear (Ursus arctors) , or mazaalai in Mongolia is found around the poplar and grass-lined oases of the southwest Gobi. Wild ass (Equus hemionus luteus) , or khulan, and wild Bactrian camels (Camelus bactrians ferus) are also found on this region. The rocky mountains of the Gobi are home to the majestic ibex and the argali sheep, although these can also be spotted in the dry hills of central Mongolia.


The most heartening wildlife story comes from the successful reintroduction from western zoos in recent years of the world’s last remaining wild horse, the Przewalski’s horse (equus przewalskii), or takhi. (A refuge west of the capital is a popular tourist destination while another, in the far southwest, is more difficult to visit.) Several hundred of these horses now graze again on Mongolian lands.


The western Altai Mountains are home to the highly endangered snow leopard (Uncia unicia) as well as lynx and the largest of Mongolia’s argali ibex (licensed hunting is permitted). Beavers, muskrats and otters can also be spotted in this region’s fast-flowing rivers. As elsewhere, wolves proliferate in the Altai.


Mongolia is a paradise for bird-watchers with eagles, vultures, buzzards, falcons, kites, and other birds of prey. Spring can be particularly exciting when buzzard and falcon chicks are easily spotted in central Mongolia. (Black crows and ravens are numerous but rarely given a second look by bird fanciers.) Surrounded by distinctive plant life, the country’s many lakes, rivers, wetlands and oases attract thousands of water birds such as cranes, ducks, geese, storks, pelicans and even rare species such as the Altai snowcock and mute swan can be spotted. Strangest of all, however, are seagulls who think there’s still a vast inland sea here.


One of the most visible birds throughout Mongolia, even far down in the Gobi Desert, is the lovely and majestic demoiselle crane, often spotted dancing and feeding in pairs. Another is the ruddy Sheldrake, a fast-flying reddish-brown and white duck with a distinctive call and usually found in pairs. Other common birds are the crested lapwing   and Mongolian skylark.


Traditionally, Mongolians did not eat fish and the country’s rivers, especially in the north, are renowned for their unusually large fish, such as the giant taimen, a member of the salmon family, which can reach two meters (six feet) in length. This and other fish resources have brought a growing number of foreign anglers to the country, who travel to remote locations for several days of guaranteed exciting fishing.


Despite the richness of the country’s flora and fauna, visitors may be disappointed not to see more wild animals in their travels around Mongolia- though they’ll certainly see plenty of “free- range” horses, camels, sheep, goats and cows, plus yaks and a crossbreed known as the “hainak”. Mongolia does face some serious conversation issues- and not just with the more obvious snow leopard and Gobi bear. Even the wild ancestors of domesticated animals such as the wild Bactrian camel, wild ass and Przewalski’s horse are threatened, despite the latter’s encouraging reintroduction. Other animals, birds and plants are also in danger.


Among the many international organizations assisting the Mongolians to manage and converse their wildlife in recent years is the New York- based Wildlife Conversation Society (WCS), operators of that city’s Central Park, Bronx and other zoos. The WCS notes a serious decline in Mongolia’s rich fauna since collapse of the Communist-run economy in 1990 and increasing foreign demand for wildlife and their products. (Previous tight controls on guns were also relaxed and Mongolians now actively hunt, not  always legally. Licensed hunting for foreigners is a strong source of government revenue.)


The world’s burgeoning fur trade threatens the marmot, wolf, bear, lynx, Pallas cat (Felis manul), fox and snow leopard. Rampant trapping of marmots over the past five years in the eastern part of Mongolia has seen their numbers halved. Poaching of the rare male saiga antelope for its horn and use in the Chinese medicinal market has been intense, according to the WCS. Further pressure on wildlife comes from the continued expansion of domestic livestock. Sadly, even the graceful white-tailed gazelle- still seen by the thousands in eastern Mongolia-is in danger. (Many say the gazelle’s decline began with the construction of the railroad to the Chinese border in the 1950s, which effectively split their habitat.) Among birds, the imperial eagle, white-naped crane, great bustard and saker falcon are also endangered.


Since 1990, the Mongolian government has vastly increased the number of national parks, often called Protected Areas, but often lacks the manpower to adequately patrol them. And, say critics, not all money from licensed hunting goes into conversation programmes. But changing long- entrenched cultural attitudes about hunting, a very long tradition in Mongolia, is the biggest challenge.

Resource: Carl Robinson "Mongolia Nomad Empire of Eternal Blue Sky"