Mobility of wildlife and livestock in the Mongolian steppe

Movement patterns of Mongolian gazelles at different grades of anthropogenic disturbances

The Mongolian Steppe Ecosystem is considered to be one of the last intact steppe ecosystems in the world and is famous for its nomadic pastoralists as well as migrating wildlife. The vast landscape extends over hundreds of thousands of square kilometers and is dominated by grass with almost no trees. The climate is characterized by extremes as irregular rainfall, harsh winters and frequent fires.

These harsh climatic conditions make the mobility of wildlife and nomadic pastoralists key for the survival and for maintaining biodiversity in this ecosystem.

Mongolian gazelles (Procapra gutturosa) are the most abundant large wild mammal in the Mongolian steppe. Each year herds of tens of thousands of Mongolian gazelles move vast distances in search of forage. The movements of Mongolian gazelles require large, unfragmented areas that allow them to move freely across the landscape. At the same time pastoralist herders have been practicing a nomadic lifestyle in the steppe for hundreds of years. Several times a year, they migrate with their livestock to find the best pasture on the naturally grown grassland. Importantly, the livestock is not fenced, and the land is used collectively for herding, allowing a unique nomadic lifestyle. This also enables free movements in the landscape. However, Mongolia is currently undergoing a rapid and profound societal transformation. Besides the economic development, urbanization and the change or loss of the traditional nomadic way of life put the Mongolian steppe ecosystem at risk.

The German-Mongolian research consortium ‘MoreStep’ investigates whether current societal transformations in Mongolia could lead to a limitation of mobility, eventually leading to a tipping point, which could cause the steppe ecosystem to tilt. Such a tipping point could have important ecological consequences, including irreversible processes such as soil degradation, the loss of wildlife movement patterns, and the loss of nomadic lifestyle and the traditional ecological knowledge. The project also aims to identify societal development steps, that will enable the mobility of wild animals and nomads and their herds for the future.

While the mobility of wild herbivores and domesticated herd animals play a key role for the sustainability of the ecosystem, Mongolia is currently affected by strong social and economic changes that may inhibit mobility. Since the 1990s, the importance of the extractive industries, i.e. the mining and oil production, has been increasing for the Mongolian economy. These societal transformations lead to linear infrastructure developments such as roads and railroads creating barriers and threatening the movements of migrating wildlife. While many land use developments are often socially and economically desirable, ecologically they are a threat. Therefore there is a need in finding mechanisms to facilitate anthropogenic development and at the same time sustain the mobility of wildlife is key for the steppe ecosystems. To understand behavioral responses of Mongolian gazelles to anthropogenic disturbances, including linear features, in September 2019 the research team deployed GPS collars on the gazelles. The preliminary observation on the movement data showed that individuals in more disturbed areas, in this case the study region in the west, move shorter distances compared to those in less disturbed areas. This preliminary pattern indicates that anthropogenic developments in the Mongolian steppe have already caused loss of wildlife mobility and proved further examination of social-economic effects.

The societal transformations also lead to urbanization of the human population, where grazing is increasingly limited to areas close to settlements. Livestock herds are becoming less mobile while, at the same time, they are steadily growing in size. The mobility of herders and their livestock is critical for the sustainable development of the steppe and it will be important to create conditions supporting the mobility of herders. Time is running out as a new generation is growing up in urban environments, not being familiar with the traditional nomadic way of life any more. Not only is the formerly close connection between people and nature getting lost, but there is also a threat of a loss of biodiversity and knowledge in the handling of grazing animals, plants and soil. In order to better understand the far-reaching societal transformations in the country, the research team works closely with relevant local actors and examines the influence of groups as diverse as nomads, mining and oil companies, governmental and non-governmental organizations on development processes. This inter- and transdisciplinary approach of the project combines social and natural sciences analysing the social-ecological dynamics in order to give recommendations on how to sustain the Mongolian Steppe Ecosystem.

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