For Dr. Rich Reading, Director of Conservation Biology at the Denver Zoo, the love affair with Mongolia began in Montana while he was up there working on a grassland conservation project. A co-worker who’d spent some time in Mongolia kept telling him about how the country looked like Montana before the white man showed up; no fences, no paved roads, nomadic people living in yurts and tepees. “That piqued my interest,” Reading said. “So in 1994, I went over for three months and ended up staying two-and-a-half years. I worked as an ecological consultant for the UN and other NGOs.”
While there, Reading had the good fortune to meet a local ecologist named Amgalanbaatar, (Mongolian for Calm Hero). “Amgaa was absolutely passionate about preserving the Argali,” Reading said. Argali are Mongolia’s answer to Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, although these bad boys are about twice the size of their Colorado cousins. “They’re the biggest sheep in the world,” Reading said. “Males can grow to over 440 lbs., and their horns curl twice or more around.”
Big? You betcha! Powerful? Absolutely! Invulnerable? Sadly, no. “There are probably only12 to 15,000 of them left,” Reading said, as he ticked off the dangers they face. “Big game hunters will pay up to $50,000 to shoot one of them. Poachers track them for meat. Their habitats are being taken over by mining interests. They’re forced to compete with domestic livestock for grazing land.”
The only thing standing in the way of their complete extinction, or so it seemed at the time, was Reading’s newfound friend, Amgalanbaatar. “Amgaa was Mr. Argali,” Reading said. “He regularly stuck his neck out to save them. He’s had his life threatened by corrupt politicians who want a percentage of the trophy money, while he fights to make sure at least some of it gets back to preservation.” Inspired by Amgaa’s dedication, Reading started working with him in an effort to save the iconic Argali.
In 1996, he was hired by the Denver Zoo to establish a conservation department. “I wanted to keep working in Mongolia,” he said. “At the time, the country was undergoing a transition from Communism to a free market economy, so we started the Mongolian Biodiversity Project to help the government expand existing protected areas. We were trying to get in there before competing land uses like mining took over. To enlist local support, we tagged our efforts to the charismatic Argali. We started looking at areas where there were good Argali populations, and we eventually established a conservation project in Ikh Nart Nature Reserve. Just by our presence there we’ve been able to stop the poaching and illegal mining threatening their habitat.”
To help bring money into the community, the Denver Zoo set up a tourist camp at Ikh Nart, and established a women’s co-op called “Ikh Nart is Our Future” to make handicrafts to sell there. In addition, they hired park rangers from among the local population, thereby giving them the option of making a living protecting the park.
The effort has paid off. “In our protected area, the Argali population has tripled and the animals are now starting to disperse and establish satellite populations,” Reading said. “The UN Development Programme ranked our park the best managed in Mongolia. It’s now used as a model for other protected areas. Countries like Kirghizstan and Tajikistan are asking us to establish similar programs. Today we have 90 projects in 22 countries.”
Reading’s friend Amgalanbaatar now works for the Denver Zoo in Mongolia as a conservation biologist. He also runs his own non-profit, The Argali Wildlife Research Center, and is writing his doctoral dissertation on Argali preservation.
“Mongolia is one of those transformational places,” Reading reflected. “To have helped my colleagues to do this work and to see them blossom as professionals has heartened me and made me realize we can make a difference.”
For more info:
Ikh Nart Nature Reserve
Click on “Subscribe” at top of page for free email notification whenever a new article is published