A Letter From Mongolia

(Written on request for Wildlife Art Journal)


I finally managed the last couple dozen yards up the moderately steep slope without having to stop, but it was an effort to pull enough oxygen into my sea level lungs. My Mongolian guide, who was just below the ridge line, gestured at me to stay low. I crouched down for the last steps and kneeled beside him, trying not to gasp out loud. Slowly, camera in hand, I looked over the ridge and saw the argali ram, laying beneath an outcropping of rocks on the next slope over from where we were. I took a couple of shots and leaned further out. Oh, my. Below the first one were nine more big rams in lovely morning light. We watched, and I photographed them, for almost a half hour as they grazed their way up the hill on Mt. Baits in the Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve.

I guess experiences like this, only a few miles from the ger camp where I was staying, are as good an answer as any to a question I get fairly often “Why Mongolia”?

It started with Earthwatch. I had signed up for my fourth project “Lions of Tsavo”. But I was perusing the new expedition guide when one I hadn’t seen before caught my eye, “Mongolian Argali”. Hum, I thought, now Mongolia sounds like it would be an interesting place to go. And I really wanted to do a mammal project, having already done lake ecology at Lake Naivasha in Kenya, archaeology at Arbeia Roman Fort near Newcastle-on-Tyne in northern England and a climate change study at the Northern Studies Research Centre outside of Churchill, Manitoba in Canada.

So, I called Earthwatch and switched from lions to the world’s largest mountain sheep, which I had never even heard of before. I also switched from the warmth of East Africa to spring in Mongolia, which, it turned out, meant cold, wind, dust storms and even snow flurries on the first of May. I had a great time. I spent two weeks on the argali project at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve, took a two day jaunt to see the takhi (Przewalski’s horse) at Hustai National Park and came home plotting how to go back.

That was 2005. In September of 2006 I was on my way to Mongolia again. I went back to Ikh Nartiin Chuluu and Hustai, but first flew 1000 miles west to Hovd and then traveled by Russian van with guide and driver 130km east to visit the third takhi reintroduction site at Khomiin Tal. I also flew south to the Gobi, where I explored Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park and Bayazag, home to The Flaming Cliffs, where I sat watching the sun go down as the Mongols I was traveling with, as it turned out, happily sat facing in the opposite direction to see the moon rise.

The third trip was in September of 2008 and my husband went with me for part of it. We went back to Hustai and Ikh Nartiin Chuluu and spent a couple of days at the Arburd Sands ger camp, where we got to ride Mongol horses and bactrian camels.

In the meantime, I had stayed in touch with the scientists who ran the research camp at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu. I had this thought about “using the arts to support conservation”, something beyond simply donating artwork to a charity event. I spoke with the Education Director at the Denver Zoo, who mentioned that they were interested in helping start a women’s crafts cooperative, but there was no one who had the time to take it on. I said I’d do it. I registered my own non-profit association, Art Partnerships for Mongolian Conservation. Dr. Richard Reading, the Director of Conservation Biology, who is also in charge of the argali project, offered to set up an account for me, which lets me take advantage of the the Denver Zoo Foundation 501(c)3 status for tax-deductible donations.

As a member of Artists for Conservation (AFC), I had twice previously applied for a Flag Expedition grant and not succeeded. I decided to try one more time. The AFC had put in place a requirement that applicants have a connection/sponsorship with a conservation organization since I had last applied. My relationship with the Denver Zoo more than fulfilled that requirement.

The purpose of the the AFC Flag Expeditions Program is “to make possible the field study and artistic rendering of endangered species or habitats deserving of greater public attention. There is a strong emphasis on the study of unique, threatened habitats, and rare or endangered species in remote parts of the world.”
My application had two parts: One, to visit three argali habitats and two, to hold meetings with the herder women at Ikh Nart about helping them set up a crafts cooperative. The conservation component of the second is that, with an alternative source of income, the number of livestock grazed in the reserve can be reduced, which will provide more resources for the resident wildlife, like the argali and also ibex.
I was awarded a $5000 grant in January of 2009 and left for my Flag Expedition on July 7. I traveled to Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve, Baga Gazriin Chuluu Nature Reserve and, once again, Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve.

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