Mongolia has what is called a “Mongolian Red Book of Endangered Species”, in this book are listed Argali also known as the Marco Polo sheep, the largest sheep in the world. Not an animal that would send droves of animal lovers to fill in Direct Debit mandates to make contributions to WWF like a panda or tiger but nevertheless an animal that is threatened with extinction.
I decided to combine a horse riding trip round the “Land of Blue Sky” with a conservation project to learn more about this elusive animal. Before leaving for Mongolia, I tapped in the word Argali into the Google web search. Most of the sites that came up, I sadly noted were for hunting. So immediately I knew one of the reasons why these Mongolian sheep are in danger.
Argali have extremely large horns. A male in his prime can have horns that spiral to over 165cm and rich big game hunters, primarily from Germany and America are prepared to pay up to $60,000 to go on an Argali hunt.
I had tried to arrive at the Ikh Nart Gobi camp site, without preconceptions of what hunting represents. And I was hoping that the local Mongolians would not be seeing the rare wild sheep as rich pickings. $60,000 could keep a nomadic community going for a long long time. There was also the almost ubiquitous market in China for the use of the horn in traditional medicine.
The first few days of the project were taken up with learning how to radio track. Animals that had been successfully trapped on previous seasons had radio collars and this meant the scientists could keep track of herds and individual animals. And it also meant that we were able to spot some Argali if only from a distance.
The Gobi is an ideal environment for the Marco Polo sheep, the rocky outcrops may seem to a visitor as barren but there are enough semi shrubs and scrub vegetation for the sheep to survive and the wide open expanses void of any development are ideal for the animals to roam.
After we had acclimatised ourselves to the desert landscape, the next stage of the project was undertaken. We had to assemble drive nets across a stretch of dry river bed, where the sheep could be driven down towards and hopefully be caught. We spent days assembling these nets. I had no idea what I was doing, but I quickly realised that neither did any of the other volunteers. After days of assembling and dismantling we managed to get the meshes to an acceptable standard for Rich, our project leader.
The first morning of the “drive”, I was keen as mustard. I was sure that we were going to catch at least five or six. And had visions of being kept busy returning back to camp tired but content with close encounters of the sheep kind.
We waited all day and no Argali came anywhere near the net that we volunteers had spent the last three days so assiduously assembling. Our Mongolian bikers and horse riders had seen a group of the animals further out in the Gobi desert but the sheep had somehow avoided being driven down into the valley and ultimately to our nets.
The monotony was not what I was expecting, but I suppose lying on a rock reading a book in the Gobi was not the most unpleasant way of spending a day. I constantly looked around hoping for a sign of any animal. Fortunately I wasn’t totally disappointed.
Suddenly, after what seemed an eternity, a beautiful silver grey fox ran directly to where I was laying. As he headed towards me he quickly realised something not native to the environment was directly in his path. He panicked, and rushed off parallel to the net to the other side of the mesh where my fellow volunteers were doing exactly the same as me, lounging on rocks. This was the first animal anywhere near our nets; but he soon made a hasty retreat.
The whole day just drifted past, lunch time came and went, and then I heard the clatter of hooves. Slowly I rolled over and crouched down. From behind a large collection of boulders, my first close up meeting with an Argali.
A male specimen, obviously even to my inexperienced eye in his prime stood for 10 maybe 20 seconds in front of me. I could see the colour of his eyes, amber. He was that close. He was the colour of the Gobi desert, sandy brown. One thing that surprised me was that he had very long legs rather like a gazelle. But what stood out the most were his great horns curling round over his head like pieces of a gnarled tree. I tried desperately not to move, frozen in the most uncomfortable position. The animal met my stare. His nostrils flared gently smelling the air.
Slowly the volunteers on the right moved towards him to force him down the valley towards the nets, this he obligingly did, but as he ran towards the net someone on the other side on the left stood up way too quickly and our lovely wild sheep darted off in the wrong direction and his rather curvaceous rump disappeared over the rocks.
I knew that this had been an encounter with something both weird and wonderful. I had never seen a sheep with such big horns. He looked majestic, not a word I would attribute to sheep down in the Welsh Valleys or across the Yorkshire moors. But he really did have a noble look about him. It was now glaringly obvious why they were so sought after. Any game hunter would want to unfortunately hang this beast’s head on his wall.
This first week of the project had clearly shown the plight of the Argali. By now Rich, the project leader had informed us we would have caught at least five or six of these sheep. So my optimism had not been totally misplaced. But until this meeting we had seen very few close up.
One particular problem for the Argali was the local dogs. Mongolians do not feed their canines. Notoriously aggressive they are there purely for the protection of the family. This means the dogs have to find their own food. There had been reports of at least three sheep being killed by local dogs in one season.
And now a new problem was beginning to emerge. That was the one of mining. A few days earlier I had gone out on a reconnaissance trip for any vague sightings of sheep in a particular area of the park and we had come on to a group of Chinese miners. They had claimed that they had permits to mine for semi precious quartz.
None of us were in a position to argue or ask to see these permits. Not only did they have guns they had very large dogs which I would assume had not had much to eat in the last few days.
The miners were using explosives to disturb the ground to start the digging process off. This was scaring the sheep and they were being forced further and further from their territory. And this meant that they were no longer in the safe confines of the conservation area of the park. Making them prime targets for the trophy hunters.
The odds have become stacked against such an unobtrusive animal and solutions, as usual, are never that clear cut.
How can you tell Mongolians that to save sheep they should start sharing their food with their dogs? And tell them despite their poverty that killing wild endangered sheep is not a way to make a living. Or that the government selling visas to the Chinese miners is not the way forward.
Mongolia is a vast country with natural reserves that up until the last few years have not been exploited. The demise of communism has meant the expansion of free economy, and new opportunities for the nomadic herders.
Local communities are struggling, and severe weather conditions, winters where the land is covered in snow and ice for months make their lives harsh almost brutal. The landscape is unforgiving and not one to give its riches up easily.
The future of the Marco Polo Sheep is becoming more and more uncertain. I consoled myself that I had at least seen one of these ancient beasts. Other travellers may not be that lucky.