Part 7: The 2016 WildArt Mongolia Expedition- The Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project And Hustai National Park (our last stops)

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An impressive stallion watches over his family group at Hustai National Park

All journeys come to an end and the Expedition concluded near Hustai National Park, one of three places in Mongolia where takhi/Przewalski’s horse have been reintroduced. Of course we went to see the horses, but our main mission was to spend time with the staff of the Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project.

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Hustai also has a healthy population of endangered Siberian marmots
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The second time we went out to see the horses we got quite an eyeful, four family groups in sight

I had been in contact with Greg Goodfellow, the project scientist, before I left for Mongolia in mid-May. We arranged for the Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project to be featured by the Expedition. A mutually agreed upon statement was written which you can read here. It provides all the basic information on what the project mission and goals are.

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From left to right: Oliver Hartman, Greg Goodfellow, Batbaatar Tumurbaatar and Kim Campbell Thornton
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There was one pen full of bankhar puppies, as cute as puppies are anywhere

The project’s first step had been to go out into the countryside and find pure bankhar through DNA testing. There are a lot of mixed heritage dogs due to the Russians turning loose their German Shepherd guard dogs when they left Mongolia after the fall of the Soviet Union, plus other breeds and types have found their way into the country over time. But enough dogs were found to start a breeding program. These were temporary kennels that had just been set up since the project needed to relocate the dogs away from UB. The new permanent ones are in place now, but I don’t have any photos of them yet.

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A bankhar, the traditional guard and livestock guardian dog of the Mongols.

Bankhar are a “landrace”, not a breed, which means they developed their traits through adaptation to the environment they live in, not human selection. The ones I’ve encountered over the years, the “ger dogs”, have always been highly aggressive when we’ve approached a ger in a vehicle or when we’re leaving. And that’s their job. Usually they’re ok once we’ve been in their owner’s ger, but sometimes I’ve seen the dogs held even when we leave. So it was a surprise to see these calm dogs who made eye contact and sought an interaction even with strangers. Still, no fingers through the wire.

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Batbaatar, one of the staff who is trained as a wildlife biologist, brought out one of the big male bankhar so we could get photos without the wire in the way. He’s a pretty serious-looking dog
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But not always. He’s starting to shed out his winter coat so looks a bit moth-eaten
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One of the puppies got loose and dashed around, but was “captured” and returned to his pen
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Batbaatar showing how the dogs are weighed as Oliver shoots some video and Greg Goodfellow looks on
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These pups are all destined to be sent to various herder’s to be livestock guardian dogs. This female caught my eye. Something about her that I really liked. Greg promised to update me on her story. And it turns out that she and another pup got to their new home down in the Gobi and promptly escaped. Fortunately both were recaptured. They were taken back to UB to be placed in a new home. I’ll update her story when I can
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The project ger, set up not far from the dogs. Oliver is doing a filmed interview with Greg
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Hustai National Park is a beautiful place and only two hours from Ulaanbaatar
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“Hustai” means “birch” in Mongolia. The park is in the mountain-steppe ecosystem and, at higher elevations there are areas of birch forest like the one ahead

The second day of our visit we went with Greg and Baagii as they visited two herder families who have project dogs. There is a protocol, a work in progress as new information and knowledge is gained, for how the recipients are to get the dogs to stay with the livestock 24/7. Most herders have only had ger dogs. The livestock guardian function pretty much died out during socialist times due to collectivization and many being killed. Herders also started to use lethal methods of predator control like poison. So what the project is actually doing is not introducing a new thing, but reviving an old traditional use of the dogs.

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Two of the project pups following their owner. They’d been at the ger so Greg wanted to see how they would do with livestock
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One of the pups, nine months old and personality plus, but what would he do?
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It took some coaxing and direction, also the tossing of some stones to signal that he was to go to the livestock and not stay with the humans, but he did what he was supposed to do
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This is what the project people want, a dog that stays with the sheep and goats, relaxed but keeping watch
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The herder who the project was working with rode up and consented to be interviewed by Oliver and Kim, with Batana translating, a job he did for us a number of times and very well. Mongols are not sentimental about animals so it was interesting to see the open affection the man showed towards the pup
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We took our leave and drove off to the second ger. The herder was in town with his wife, who was having a baby, so a friend filled in. Both pups were at the ger and looked to be in good shape.

I had made arrangements in advance for a special late lunch, khorhog, the “real” Mongolian BBQ. Greg was happy to set it up since the purchase of a sheep by visitors is something that supports the local community and it turned out that our “supplier” was also someone who had project dogs.

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Khorhog- mutton, in this case, roasted in a metal container with hot rocks. It was delicious!
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The valley of the Tuul Gol, which also flows through Ulaanbaatar. Hustai National Park is to the left
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From left to right: Batbaatar Tumurbaatar, Susan Fox, Oliver Hartman, Kim Campbell Thornton, Greg Goodfellow (photo by our most excellent guide, Batana)

We had plans to go horse riding and takhi watching on our last day, but the weather had other ideas. A very strong front moved in overnight with heavy wind and rain. In the morning it was pouring and blowing. Batana called in to see what the forecast was, which was that the storm would continue through the day and beyond. It was pretty miserable. We’d had more than our fair share of wind and rain on the Expedition. With no prospect of clearing in sight, our guide and drivers said we needed to pack it up and head back into town and I agreed. Another driver had been sent out, so we and all our gear went into the two Land Cruisers as quickly as possible. Puugii, our van driver, and Soyoloo, our cook, stayed behind to take down and pack everything else. So we all said our goodbyes and parted. Nomadic Journeys arranged for us to stay at the Bayangol Hotel at no cost to us, a consideration that was greatly appreciated. So in we came from three adventurous weeks in the field to hot showers and soft beds, the 2016 WildArt Mongolia Expedition at its end.

I want to personally thank everyone who made the Expedition possible. First, the staff of Nomadic Journeys, who arranges these very “custom” trips for me every year, particularly Jan Wigsten, one of the owners, who listens to my ideas and plans, offers input and advice and, with the staff, makes my Mongolia travel dreams come true. And we don’t go anywhere without a solid, professional field crew: our super drivers Erdenebat and Puugii,, Soyoloo our wonderful cook and our guide Batana, who rose to every challenge. And Kim and Oliver who, no matter the conditions, and they were challenging at times in a variety of ways, could not have been better traveling companions. I loved being able to share some of “my” Mongolia with them both.

Final notes: Kim Campbell Thornton has written an excellent article on the Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project. You can read it here.

Oliver Hartman is a filmmaker and also a member of the Explorers Club. His company is called “Jungles in Paris”. You can check it out here.

Nomadic Journeys has made all my in-country travel arrangements in Mongolia since my second trip in 2006 (2o16 was trip no. 11). You can find out more about them and their special brand of sustainable, ecologically and culturally responsible travel here.

To learn more about takhi and Hustai National Park, go here.

The website of the Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project is here.

 

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Mongolia Monday: Flora And Fauna- Hustai National Park

The next ten or so posts will cover all the places I visited on this past trip, some familiar and well-loved and some new.

The two-week trip with Pokey emphasized the best wildlife viewing places that I’ve found. We headed west out of Ulaanbaatar on a sunny August morning….

and spent two productive days at Hustai, seeing lots of takhi and other wildlife. The wildflowers were still in bloom, too, which was lovely.

These horses were part of a group approaching a water hole right by the road; you'll have to wait for the painting to see the rest...
At first this harem was a long way off
But as we watched from behind a line of rocks, they drifted closer and closer
Finally, they grazed their way right past us in the fading light; it was quite wonderful to have them come so close
Marmots generally run straight for their holes when spooked, but for some reason we will never fathom, this one ran for a long way right down the middle of the road
These darian partridges were a new species for me
Black kite in a birch tree; "Hustai" means "birch" in Mongolian
Cinereous vulture, the largest Eurasian vulture which can weigh up to 30 lbs.
This grasshopper suddenly appeared on our windshield
Saw more spiders on the trip this year than ever before, including this one on a member of the phlomis family
Deep purple globe thistles
Edelweis

Mongolia Monday- Real Mongolian BBQ (Boodog)

Siberian marmot in Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve, July 2009

Summer is here and I thought I’d present a photo essay on one of the most beloved foods in Mongolia….marmot. Say “tarvaga” to the average Mongolian and watch their eyes light up.

Unfortunately, the native Siberian marmots have gone from occupying the steppes in the millions to Endangered in just ten years, having experienced a 70% population drop.  The major contributor to this decline was a demand for the pelts by….the Chinese.

Hunting is still allowed during August and September, depending on population numbers, according the species listing in the IUCN Red List. Hunting can also be shut down if bubonic plague flairs up. It turns out that marmots in Mongolia are the source vector for the bubonic plague that hit Europe in the 1340s. The Mongols know that if they see a marmot behaving strangely, then it is likely that plague is present.

Marmots in Hustai National Park, May 2005

The cooking traditions surrounding marmot in Mongolia is the stuff of visitor legend. A number of the travel accounts I’ve read have an account of the preparation of marmot, always with a “and you won’t believe this, but….” tone.

I finally had my chance to try it last year. Since this was a personal extension of hospitality to me because they knew I liked Mongol food, I will allow my hosts to remain anonymous.

(Important note: if you are squeamish or think that meat starts out wrapped in cellophane, you may want to stop reading here. This photo essay will show the whole process from beginning to end.)

Any Mongols reading this are invited to add comments, stories, corrections in the comment section. This is accurate to the best of my knowledge, based on what I saw and was told.

Stove heating up rocks and marmot carcass ready to stuff
The meat is stuffed back into the carcass, along with the hot rocks, which will cook the meat from the inside; the cook made sure that the carcass was stuffed with rocks all the way down into the hind legs
Pounding the meat and rocks down into the carcass
Closing the neck opening with wire
Then we all adjourned to this beautful spot by the river for picnic dinner
Now for the famous part: removing the fur with a portable torch
A helper scrapped the singed fur off and also the fat as it came to the surface
The next step was to wipe down the carcass with bunches of grass and then rinse and scrub it with water
The neck wire was removed and the juice poured into a cup, which was then handed to me. I drank it right down and it was quite good
Then the carcass was split open to get at the chunks of meat; I was also given the tongue and it was good, too
Dinner is served
As is traditional, the hot rocks were passed around for health and good luck
We also had cabbage salad, everything washed down with Mongolian vodka. We had been drinking airag, but my guide said that airag and boodog don't mix, so we switched to the vodka. Did I say I was having a great time?
Not much left. I ate my share. Yes, it was good. Really good
Notice the back paw has four toes and the front paw has five; why this is true will be the subject of my next Mongolia Monday post

An Earth Day Album Of 25 Endangered/Threatened Species I’ve Seen

It’s clear that one lesson we, as a species MUST learn, is to share. All of these animals have just as much right to be here as we do. As they go, in the end, so shall we.

I’ve never made a point, for the most part, of specifically seeking out endangered or threatened species to photograph for my paintings. But, as it’s happened, in less than ten years I’ve seen two dozen, plus one, all in the wild. Quite a surprise, really.

Sometimes they’ve been pretty far away, but that in no way diminished the thrill of seeing them. Close-ups in a zoo or other captive animal facility can be useful, within certain limits, but seeing a wild animal in its own habitat, even at a distance, is much more satisfying and gives me ideas and information for my work that I couldn’t get any other way.

In no particular order, because they are all trying to survive on this planet:

Takhi, Hustai National Park, Mongolia
Monk Seal, Kauai, Hawaii, United States
Wolf, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, United States
White-napped crane, Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve, Mongolia
White Rhino, Lewa Downs Conservancy, Kenya
Laysan Albatross, Kauai, Hawaii, United States
Tule Elk, Point Reyes National Seashore, California, United States
Rothschild's Giraffe, Soysambu Conservancy, Kenya
Nene, Hawaii Big Island, Hawaii, United States
Desert Bighorn, Anza-Borrego State Park, California, United States
Grizzly Bear, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, United States (Bear 264)
Saker Falcon, near Hangai Mountains, Mongolia
Green Sea Turtle, Hawaii Big Island, Hawaii, United States
Grevy's Zebra, Lewa Downs Conservancy, Kenya
Lammergeier, Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park, Mongolia
California Condor, Central Coast, California, United States
African Lion, Masai Mara, Kenya
Hawaiian Hawk (Juvenile), Volcano National Park, Hawaii Big Island, Hawaii, United States
Siberian Marmot, Hustai National Park, Mongolia
Whooper Swans, Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve, Mongolia
Cheetahs, Masai Mara, Kenya
Apapane, Hawaii Big Island, Hawaii, United States
Trumpeter Swans, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, United States
Cinereous Vulture (Juvenile), Baga Gazriin Chuluu Nature Reserve, Mongolia
Argali, Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve, Mongolia

Mongolia Monday- Postage Stamps, Part 3: A Beautiful Set Of Wildlife Images

I ordered these to get the first stamp shown, but the whole set, uncanceled and in perfect condition, is so well-done that I wanted to share them all with you. I think that they are of interest not only because of their subjects, but as lovely little works of art. I wish I knew who the artist was.

Argali (Ovis ammon); the legs are a little short, but otherwise this is quite good; found in the high mountain zone and mountainous areas of the Gobi
Brown bear (Ursus arctos) : found in the northern mountains of Mongolia , which is the southernmost part of the taiga or boreal forest
Lynx (Lynx lynx); found in the taiga (forest zone)
Siberian marmot (Marmota sibirica); has undergone a tremendous population crash in recent decades; now exists in localized populations; found in the mountain forest steppe transition zone and the steppe
Moose (Alces alces), called "elk" in Europe: found in the taiga; same species as found in North America
Wild boar (Sus scrofa); found in the mountain forest steppe transition zone; a small population also inhabits the reed beds of Khar Us Nur
Wolf (Canis lupus); found in the taiga, mountain forest steppe and steppe

Next week, I’ll be featuring two Mongolian equids, the takhi and khulan.