My plan was to go back to Kenya in 2005 for an Earthwatch Institute-sponsored research project “Lions of Tsavo”. But I was leafing through the new Expedition guide and a project I hadn’t seen before caught my eye, “Mongolian Argali”, whatever those were. Oh. Wild sheep. But….Mongolia. Now there was a place that seemed like it might be interesting to travel to. And who knew how long the project would last. Some went on for a decade or more. Others only for a year or two. I called the Earthwatch office, changed projects and, without realizing it at the time, changed my life.
Argali (Ovis ammon) are the world’s largest mountain sheep. A big ram can weigh close to 400 pounds. The horn curl can reach 65″. Their preferred habitat is rocky uplands, mountains and steppe valleys. They are currently listed on the IUCN Red List as Near Threatened and Appendix II of CITES. Accurate population estimates are hard to come by. The most current one is perhaps as many as 20,000 in Mongolia. It is known that the total continues to drop in the western and central parts of the country, is stable in the south, but seems to be increasing in the east.
Threats include poaching, both for subsistence meat and for the horns, which are now in demand in China for use in traditional medicine. It has also been shown that there is a nearly 100% grazing overlap between the wild argali and domestic livestock, which includes horses, sheep, goats and cattle. Predation by the herder’s domestic dogs, particularly on lambs in the spring, is also a problem. Trophy hunting is not currently a large factor, but the license fee income (18,000 USD) ends up going almost entirely to the federal government. Very little trickles down to either the local people or for conservation projects. One response at the local level has been to create reserves where hunting is not allowed.
As you can see below, there is now an Argali Conservation Management Plan. My on-going involvement with the womens’ craft collective comes under item four on the list.
To quote from the Red List entry on argali:
“Additional conservation measures are desperately required in Mongolia. Clark et al. (2006) outlined the following:
• Implement the recommendations outlined in the Argali Conservation Management Plan.
• Improve enforcement of existing legislation that would help conserve argali.
• Enhance conservation management in protected areas where argali are found at high population densities, and increase the capacity of protected areas personnel and other environmental law enforcement officers.
• Work to improve the livelihoods of local communities in areas where argali are protected by local initiatives and re-initiate community-based approaches to argali conservation (Amgalanbaatar et al. 2002a).
• Develop public education programmes to raise awareness of the status of and threats to the species.
• Continue ecological research, monitor population trends, and study the impacts of threats, including work in the Altai and Khangai Mountains to complement research occurring in the Gobi Desert.
• Implement the recommendations from the Mongolian Wildlife Trade Workshop as outlined in Wingard and Zahler (2006).
Until a joint research effort was started by the Mongolian Academy of Sciences and the Denver Zoological Foundation at the Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve in 2001, very little was known about argali ecology, behavior and population status. This was the research that I had signed up to help with as part of the second Earthwatch team ever to go to Mongolia.
It was April of 2005. Spring in Mongolia is a time of cold, wind and dust storms. Daytime temperatures during the team’s two week stay, living in a traditional felt ger, sometimes only reached 32F. I had the time of my life. When they found out I was an artist, one of the scientists asked if I would be willing to go out and do direct behavioral observations. And that’s what I did for the last three days, trekking out alone into the 43,000 hectare reserve with a clipboard, data forms, GPS, cameras, water bottle and snacks, trying to see the sheep before they saw me, otherwise any data I collected was invalid.
Although a lot of the animals were in poor condition coming out of a typical Mongolian winter in which temperatures can plunge to -40F, I saw many groups that included rams, ewes and lambs, gathered some useable data and got some pretty good photographs. It was a perfect two-fer. I was able to contribute to scientific knowledge of a species and at the same time get information that would be invaluable for painting them.
I’ve been back to Ikh Nart five times since then and argali have become a particularly favorite subject. I’ve also seen them now at two other locations: Baga Gazriin Chuluu Nature Reserve and Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve.
I thought that I would share some of the photos I’ve taken and the paintings that have come out of them. It usually takes around three, often quite a few more, reference shots since I move animals around, change backgrounds or whatever it takes to make a composition work. I’m only going to show the main animal reference that I worked from. This fieldwork is critical. When working on a painting, I’m also remembering what it was like to be at that place, how the wind felt, the utter quiet when I stopped for a break, then trudging along, looking up and seeing that the sheep had already spotted and were watching me.