I went to Mongolia as a volunteer on the Earthwatch project, Wildlife of the Mongolian Steppe, run at Ikh Nart Nature Reserve, 6 or 7 hours drive roughly southwest of the capital in the semi-desert part of the Eastern Gobi, though I'm not sure which semi-desert part that is in the Wikipedia entry. The camp is made up of 7 gers (pronounced gehr, like Frank Gehry), two pit latrine outhouses, a shower - that's for solar showers, there's no running water - and two containers for storage, and is powered by solar panels and a wind turbine.
There were 4 volun- teers out of a possible 6: Phil, from New Zealand; Amanda, from Singapore; Barbara, from Mississippi; and me (last year's volunteers pictured). We were the first Earthwatch group of 2010, and all agreed the best so far this year. We worked on several projects, ably assisted by the 15 scientists, students and staff who keep the research going year-round.
Selenge, who studied in Germany and speaks English with a lovely German accent, is like the project manager - as far as I know she doesn´t do any research, but she takes care of the logistics that make the research possible. She was also the one responsible for getting the new cook, Uuree, who kept us all going with her wonderful food.
Amgaa is president of the Argali Wildlife Research Center and hands down the best tracker in camp, having spent the past 20-odd years monitoring argali sheep. This is the longest running project at Ikh Nart, and these were the sheep I went to count. In April they catch and put radio transmitter collars on argali lambs and ibex kids and in the autumn they do the same with adults. The transmitters work for a couple of years before falling off, and are used to monitor the argali numbers and movements.
Tracking argali and ibex is no picnic. They have great hearing, vision and sense of smell. Usually by the time I had found them with my binoculars they were looking right at me or already running away. The males were a little less flighty, and one morning I got close enough to some ibex to take some decent pictures (yes, I consider that to be a decent picture). They stood there, intrigued, while I fumbled with my binocs and camera. Clearly I wasn't much of a threat.
After a couple of days chasing argali, it was a nice break to go out with Mandakh, the botanist, and help with the botanical surveys. It was always a pleasant walk at a relaxed pace, and she would point out other interesting species as we went along. We saw wild irises (pictured) and thyme, and she would tell me the local or medicinal uses of the plants we passed. She's also very good at spotting animals. I saw my first vulture while out with her, and got closer to a couple of argali than I ever did while tracking them without a guide.
Buyanaa leads the small mammal research, assisted by Muugii. We set traps in the evenings baited with peanut butter and millet, and in the mornings saw what cute little furry creatures gave in to the temptation. Then Buyanaa and Muugii weighed, measured and tagged them and let them go again. They only really need one more assistant to write down the data but it's such a nice experience that usually at least 3 of us went. Even on the snow day we turned out in numbers. So did the small mammals - we caught more hamsters and gerbils that night than any other. They were all half-frozen, but alive.
The snow day fell on our Mongolian Barbecue day, so once we had released the small mammals we were free for the day. We built a snowman and had snowball fights. When it cleared up in the afternoon I went for a couple of walks. The only thing that detracted from the beauty and serenity on the rocks in the sunshine was my imagination. I kept picturing getting pounced on by wolves, or dozing off and being awoken by a hungry vulture. There's nothing like visualizing yourself as lunch to make you a little jumpy. I can sympathize with the argali.
Puujee is studying the cinereous vulture and other birds of prey, and there seem to be lots of them around. He didn't particularly need our help this time of year but he still pointed out lots of birds to us and thanks to him I can now identify a few of them. We also got to see this nest of Saker falcon chicks he's been monitoring.
Rich, of the Denver Zoological Foundation, has been working on projects in Mongolia for 16 years, and on this trip was mainly involved in fecal studies, comparing the intestinal parasites of wild and domestic animals. This fit right in with my lifelong fascination with all things poo-related. I helped prepare the samples but soon learned I´m not much of a parasitologist. If you can tell the difference between coccidia and strongyles you´re doing better than me.
The newest project underway is a study of the local snakes, so they brought Kevin in from Denver as herpetologist and veterinarian. He arrived about a week before us but we left at the same time, and since it was his first time in Mongolia too he kind of felt like one of the volunteers. A really, really knowledgeable one.
The snake study was a little slow starting. It turns out snakes aren't crazy about the snow. We didn't catch any until well into the second week, and even then it was mostly vipers so the volunteers didn't get to handle them. There was one coluber (pictured) who let us pass him around, but the rest weren't nice.
Collars aren't much use on a snake (yes, I had to ask) so Kevin inserted the radio transmitters and 8 inch (200mm) long flexible antenna surgically into the two snakes that were big enough to take them (over 80g, I think). Our dining ger was converted to a surgery theatre, and he was assisted by Hongoroo, a veterinary student, and Nandia, a biology undergrad. Everyone in the camp, including a couple of the rangers, turned out to watch. It was amazing. You'll be happy to know both snakes recovered fine and seem unperturbed by their new hardware.
Evenings when there wasn't fecal sampling or snake surgery to be done we sometimes had present- ations on the research people here have been doing. Amgaa explained the argali/ibex study and how the work we were doing contributes to that. Buyanaa gave a presentation on the small carnivores study she recently finished, and Puujee talked about his research on cinereous vultures. Kevin showed us footage of his recent expeditions to the arctic and antarctic, complete with penguin impressions. They were all fascinating. On other nights we played cards, which it turns out is a great way to learn to count. I'm proud to say I can now count to 10 (slowly) in Mongolian.
The evening of the snow day we ate our Mongolian barbecue inside. It was goat cooked with potatoes and turnip-like vegetables and rocks in a big pot on the open fire. I didn't see how it all fit together so I'm not sure what the rocks were for, but it was good. Afterward we sat around and sang. It's a typical Mongolian pasttime, and they're really good at it. They all know all the words and the tune - already way ahead of us - and then they harmonize and it's just beautiful. Phil and Kevin made a valiant effort to represent the Southern and Western hemispheres, Phil with a Haka (like this, sort of) and Kevin with the Beverly Hillbillies and a Christmas dance. The rest of us all made some contribution - I think Amanda and Rich sang Mandy in my honor but I blocked that part out. We were outclassed - no question. The Mongolians won.
I had an absolute blast - it was everything I hoped, and this post doesn't even begin to describe it. I can't end, though, without mentioning Sara, the elusive hedgehog. At first I was really excited - I like hedgehogs and the idea of catching one and helping to replace her transmitter sounded great. Sara had other ideas though, and after days of hiking the 5km out to her burrow to see if she had come out of hibernation and then hiking back again disappointed the charm wore off a little. She's clearly determined to save herself for the June team. I hope they appreciate her.