Mongolia Monday- Wildlife Profiles: Argali

Ikh Nartiin Chuluu argali ram, April 2005: This big old ram let me follow him around for about half an hour.

I’m starting the New Year with a new series on Mongolian wildlife. These will be short profiles with essential information and interesting links. First up is the animal which brought me to Mongolia in the first place, the argali, now one of my favorite subjects.

Species: Argali (Ovis ammon)

Weight, height and horn length: Argali are the world’s largest mountain sheep. A large ram can weigh as much as 375 lbs (65-170km). They stand from  3-4″ (90-120cm) at the shoulder. The horns can measure up to  65″ (165cm).

Argali rams, Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve, July 2009; I peeked over the ridge (after dragging my oxygen-starved body up a steep slope following my guide) and what should I see...a big group of argali rams, twelve in all.

Conservation Status: Near-threatened (IUCN Red List)

Argali rams, Baga Gazriin Chuluu, July 2009; Same trip as above, but this time the sheep were within sight of the road. I simply stood by the car and took lots of photos of these six beautiful boys

Habitat preference: mountains or large areas of rocky outcroppings in the desert steppe, some open desert; more recently found in mountain steppe (Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve)

Argali rams, Ikh Nartiin Chuluu, August 2010; In all my six trips to Mongolia, going out to see argali every time, this sighting was the jackpot....five rams less than 50 yards away and I had them to myself for at least an hour.

Best Places to see argali: Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve, Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve; They may also be seen at Baga Gazriin Chuluu and Ikh Gazriin Chuluu, both local reserves (no websites)

Argali ram, ewe and lamb, Ikh Nartiin Chuluu, July 2011; Typical sighting of argali up on the rocks.

Interesting facts:

-There are no argali in captivity, neither zoos or reserves. The only place to see them is in their native habitats.

– While the rams do fight it out during the annual rut for mating privileges, otherwise argali don’t have set herds or harems. Who is with who can change through the day. Rams mingle freely with ewes and lambs, form bachelor groups or wander around on their own.

– In July of 2009, I was in the right place and the right time to be the first person to ever photograph an argali swimming a river…the Kherlen Gol, which flows through Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve. It was known that they do it, but since almost all the research on them is done at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu, where there are no rivers, no one had ever actually seen, much less photographed, it.

Mongolia Monday- The Wildlife Of Mongolia Through An Artist’s Eyes: Argali

Argali ram, Ikh Nartiin Chuluu, 2005

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.

Group of four argali rams, Ikh Nartiin Chuluu, 2005

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).

Argali ewes and lambs, Ikh Nartiin Chuluu, 2005

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.

I saw this large group at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu in 2008; seventeen animals, I think, and they ran up that vertical cliff like water flowing uphill

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.

A typical sighting of some ewes and older lambs at Ikh Nart, but with a cinereous vulture, the world's largest, sitting on a rock in the background; in the distance is the desert steppe

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.

Driving into Ikh Nart in 2008; a grab shot from the car of four rams
Rams on rocky hillside at Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve in 2009; the key to spotting them is to look for movement and those long, thin legs, which don't seem to quite fit the landscape; this was with my 80-400 mm lens (effectively 600mm on a digital body) at maximum zoom
This group of rams, at Baga Gazriin Chuluu Nature Reserve were about 800 meters away within plain view of the road through the park; "lazy" animal watching

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.

For one of my first argali paintings, I wanted to show them in the fantastic landscape of Ikh Nartiin Chuluu; April 2005
Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Argali 15x30" oil
Argali ewe, Ikh Nartiin Chuluu; April 2005; I added a lamb and moved the ewe up so her head would be against the sky for maximum contrast
Argali Ewe and Lamb, Ikh Nartiin Chuluu; 12x12" oil on canvasboard
Old ram, Ikh Nartiin Chuluu; April 2005; He's probably long gone, but we spent a, for me, memorable half hour together as he let tag along behind him after checking me out; that's also him in the first photo at the top of this post
Mutual Curiosity 17x30" oil