The 2015 WildArt Mongolia Expedition, which had the honor of carrying Explorers Club Flag 179, began when I got up at 3:45 am on July 16 for the drive to the airport. We picked up the Mongol student/artist, Turuu, who was going with me for the first two weeks of the trip, and arrived at Chinggis Khan International Airport at almost the same time as our hosts for this first part of the Expedition, argali researchers Dr. Barry Rosenbaum and Dr. Amgalanbaatar Sukh. Barry had generously allowed me invite myself and Turuu to join him and his team for this year’s argali capture attempts. It was about a 2 1/2 hour flight to Olgii and, having a window seat, I was able to get some aerial photos as we flew in.
We were met by two drivers with Russian fergon vans. One was from Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve, of which Dr. Amgalanbaatar (Amgaa) is the Director. They had driven out from central Mongolia with the capture equipment, including a very large pile of nets. We had lunch in town and had time to explore the town while Barry and Amgaa took care of some final arrangements.
Bayan-Olgii Aimag has a Kazakh majority and is best known as the home of the eagle hunters. But our mission was Altai argali. I had never seen the sheep that live out in the far west and was interested to see what, if any, differences there were between them and the Gobi argali I have become very familiar with. They are both members of the same species, Ovis ammon.
Our destination was the Hokh Serkhiin Nuruu Strictly Protected Area, about a three hour drive south of Olgii.
We arrived at our destination, a Kazakh “homestead” in a wide valley with a stream running through it.
The first order of business was to prepare the last bits needed to set up the nets.
Then it was time to head out to the capture site. I had the pleasure and privilege of being designated “the photographer” since I had good camera equipment with me, so I was able to move around as needed and document the whole process.
Barry had briefed everyone (he had a number of volunteers with him) on what to expect….how the nets would be set up and why, how the sheep would not be “driven” but slowly and carefully moved along in the desired direction by local Kazakh horsemen and the many ways the argali had found in previous years to evade the nets.
The nets were set up in two rows about two hundred yards long at the low point of the level area between hills.
This took some time. It took “teams” of three or four people working together. One on either side of the net to raise the supporting posts, one at the end to hold the rope taut and someone to hammer in the stakes.
Then, after all that work, setting up four hundred yards of netting, the order came from Barry to drop them to the ground! Which made sense once one thought about it, not taking a chance on an animal getting caught and trapped during the night. Of course, this took mere minutes compared to the set-up.
Back at camp the next morning there was a meeting between the researchers and the local Kazakh horsemen who had been hired to find and bring in the sheep.
Then we went back out to the capture site. I took this photo to try to give some idea of how long the net line was.
A couple of local herders with very sharp eyes and binoculars had been scanning the surrounding hills for argali and did so again the next morning while the nets were raised again. They did this every day and sheep were located almost every time.
A single ram was spotted, silhouetted against the sky. There were two ewes grazing on a hillside far up. Also this herd of ewes and lambs. Taken with my 80-400mm lens, so they were a long way off.
Once the nets were in place, everyone took a pre-determined position.
The first morning the horsemen found and started to drive a group of seven argali rams, but they did what the rams do, which is split up and dash in different directions. I started to understand why captures are challenging with smart animals who have survived because they know so many ways to escape.
The second morning the spotters went out and came up empty. I went back in the afternoon with Barry and the Ikh Nart crew and joined in helping to set up the nets.
Word had come back an hour or so earlier that the horsemen, who had ridden a long ways into the mountains in their search, had finally found the big herd that was believed to be in the area. Barry initially decided to delay because it was sunny and hot. Argali can become hypothermic and die within twenty minutes of capture in those conditions. But then it started to cloud up and Amgaa got things moving. Barry went back to camp in one of the vans to get the volunteers.
One could feel a frisson of excitement and anticipation. Everyone in the valley around the nets was on the ground and had to stay absolutely still. The previous attempts had the volunteers, strung out at 40 yard intervals on either side of the end points of the nets and up onto the slope where the argali were supposed to show up, laying flat and face down for over two hours. Their job was to get up when signaled via walkie-talkies to block the sheep from that escape direction.
This time it was a little over an hour after everyone was in place and…
The huge herd just poured down off the hill. Anand, one of the rangers from Ikh Nart, who was acting as a spotter and not far from me yelled” Susan, get down!” So I ducked even lower behind my grass clump.
Then things started to happen very fast. The sheep on the slope started to pull up.
Anand called my name again and pointed past me. I turned and saw this…
They must have split off as the main herd was running up and over the mountain. They came out from between it and the next hill at a dead run. All I could do was sit and shoot as many photos as I could as they went by, maybe thirty yards away.
It was definitely a letdown for everyone, even though the researches (and I) know that nothing is guaranteed with wild animals. But I got some fantastic images of those argali who ran past me, one of whom was wearing a radio collar, so she was one who had been captured by Barry last year.
The next morning we went out for one last try. Word had come in that two groups of argali had been located. At 10:15am I was in “my spot”, this time knowing that I was so close that I would use the Nikon D750 body with the 28-300 lens, not the 80-400. My instructions had been to stay put until the sheep hit the nets, then I was free to move around wherever I wanted to. But by 12:40 all the horsemen and motorbike riders were back, having found no argali. So it was back to camp and the end of capture attempts for this year for the researchers, sorry to say.
No matter, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, heat and epic numbers of mosquitos notwithstanding. For three days I got to be part of an important research effort since Barry’s work in Bayan-Olgii is the only other place in the world besides Ikh Nartiin Chuluu where research is being carried out on this species. I was able to see Altai argali who, while the same species, do differ in color and markings from the Gobi argali.
There was the usual group photo session. I asked if I could pose with the Kazakh horsemen. Someone said something to them and they walked off, so I figured the answer was “no”. But, silly me, they had just gone to get their horses and line up for this great shot.
I also wanted one of me and Barry and the Ikh Nart crew, which first got a little silly.
It took awhile to get everything set for departure, so what the heck…
Turuu and I were able to hitch a ride with the Ikh Nart folks for the four hour run to Hovd, where we would join up with a guide and driver/cook for the next stage of the Expedition.
It was a stunning drive. Lots of grab shots from the van.
Turuu and I stayed at a local hotel for a couple of nights, meeting up with our guide and driver/cook over lunch and planning the next week’s route, which included Maikhan Nature Reserve and Jargalant Hairkhan Uul. And they will be the subject of next week’s post.