I had lost the sunlight over an hour ago. Well, the sunlight barely made it into these narrow canyons during this time of the year. I was in the South Gobi region of Mongolia and this was the month of November. With no sun reaching the dept of these canyons, the temperature was well below freezing. The one thing I dreaded the most in this region was a bike crash. And just as the thought crossed my mind, the rear wheel of my bike wobbled in the loose gravel and I came down crashing. Lying on the ground I smelled petrol and so I immediately rushed to the bike and put it on the main stand. Only a little petrol had leaked. I had a minor bruise on my left thigh but otherwise I seemed alright.
I pulled out the map of the region and my GPS unit and pondered for a while. After a few minutes I admitted to myself that I was lost! With the sun going down my situation was worsening. My best bet was to head dead north, get out of the mountain and into the open steppe, and I should be able to see the road; simple! Find the highway in the steppe and get back to camp. If I could make it to the highway before total dark I should be fine.
I was here in the Gobi desert to try and assess the conservation status and distribution of wild ungulates in the newly proposed Local Protected area around the Tost-Tosunbumba mountains. Alongside, I also hoped to estimate the availability of wild-ungulate-prey for the snow leopard which would complement my work in India. This is also the site of the Long Term Ecological Study, a joint venture of the Snow Leopard Trust and PANTHERA. The only place in the world where you can study the snow leopard using, almost exclusively, a motorbike to get around. Orjan, a colleague from Sweden, is also doing his PhD here. He is incredible when it comes to collaring snow leopards. He has already collared 15 snow leopards and 6 of them currently carry their collars. The study is aimed at understanding the home range, movement and predation pattern of snow leopards. I felt that our work complimented each other very well.
The most abundant ungulate in this region was the Siberian ibex Capra sibirica and the argali Ovis amon. Though the latter is comparatively much rarer. Outside the mountains and into the steppe there is also the Black-tailed gazelle, khulan and the occasional wild Bactrian camel that stray from the neighboring Great Gobi Strictly Protected area.
From my assessments so far, there is a healthy population of ibex. Large enough to support a viable population of the snow leopards. But the status of the other four ungulates is bleak. Interviews with the local herders suggested that the Khulan may even have gone locally extinct; sometime over the last decade. Nadia, an alumni of the M.Sc. Course at the Wildlife Institute of India, but a local Mongolian, helped with the interview surveys. She also found out that it was only a few male bactrian camels that made forays to this region , that too only during winters, probably in search of mates among the domestic free-ranging camel population. Over the last decade the Black-tailed gazelle has retreated further west and exists as a small population of less than 30 individuals. Even though the argali is distributed over a much larger area, their population seems small, as sighting an argali is a difficult task.
Even if this area was declared a Local Protected Area, it was threatened by the mining companies that had already procured licenses to explore for minerals in this region. I had already seen some of the mining activity within the borders of the PA. Then there was also the illegal, open-cast mining for gold; aptly called Ninja mining. You hardly ever saw people doing it, just the scares left on the land! The border with China, the sink for all the minerals of Mongolia, is barely 40 km away from here. The nightmare of straying into china that haunted me at my field site in Spiti, Himachal Pradesh, India, still haunts me here!
As these thoughts were running in my head, I rode over a gentle rolling hill and the vast steppe opened in front of me. The warm glow of the setting sun reflected from the dry grass covering the landscape in shades of gold! I wondered why anyone would want to dig up a place as beautiful as this.
I guess, the glitter of gold outshines the Gobi!