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The Peregrine Fund Notes From The Field
Notes from Mongolia (January 2003 Field Season)
Nyambayar Batbayar — in Mongolia Project    Share
Nyambayar Batbayar with some Mongolians in front of a ger.
Nyambayar Batbayar with some Mongolians in front of a ger.
I woke up because of an unpleasant nightmare. Half asleep and rubbing my eyes trying to open them, I looked around, but no one was there from the host family. There was only me and Sumiya in the ger. It was 6:30 in the morning and very quiet inside, except the noise the boiling tea makes. I threw my deel (traditional Mongol wool jacket) on my shoulders and stepped outside. The morning fresh air made me feel fully awakened, but very soon I caught the chilly wind and wanted to go back inside. Just then Dorjoo, the man of the family, arrived on his horse and followed me inside. Inside the ger, the warmth from a dung fire in the zuukh (round stove placed in the center of ger) made me feel warm again. While kicking his one foot with another to scrub the snow off, he said, “There are some fresh kills for your vultures today.” He continued, “Early this morning our sheep herd was attacked and those “zevkhii saaral” (noxious gray wolf) have killed two of our sheep... At the least, I better go quickly for the sheep’s skins before the birds tear them apart.”

In a half hour, he returned with sheepskins dragging next to him. It is customary that herders do not use any predator kills for food use. They only take the pelt for sale if it was a fresh kill and not torn or damaged. Sumiya and I decided to wait for the vultures to show up. Two hours after the herder had skinned the sheep, two Cinereous Vultures appeared from the north and started to soar just above the sheep carcasses. They seemed like they already knew those sheep carcasses. Within two hours, those two birds, accompanied with three other vultures, two dogs, and four ravens, finished up both sheep and left only some pieces of skin, broken spine, legs, and heads.

Since 2002, we have been studying the breeding ecology of Cinereous Vultures across several study sites in central Mongolia. Through our work we have learned many interesting foraging and food habits of this little known species, the largest Old World vulture. We are the only team working in Mongolia studying this species and our goal is to collect all possible information that is essential for the conservation of this amazing bird.

The survival of any raptor species depends on suitable habitat, sufficient food supply, and human influence. Because Cinereous Vultures are currently common across many habitats in Mongolia, one of our central questions is: Are these crucial factors secure for Cinereous Vultures in Mongolia in the future? Are there enough nesting habitats? The answer to this is probably “Yes,” they are abundant. But the answer to the previous question is much more difficult to answer and deeply interconnected with human influence.

Mongolia was populated with plenty of wild ungulates at one time, but they are dramatically declining and disappearing due to excessive hunting, poaching, and habitat degradation in many places. There does seem to be an ample supply of domestic animals for now. However, the domestic animals can serve as only a potentially available food source and not easily edible food. How about human harassment; do people kill vultures in Mongolia? No, Mongols do not kill birds. They are one of the few nations in the world that have no practice of shooting birds.

Mongolian Steppe
Mongolian Steppe
Most raptors depend on their hunting skills, fast flight, sharp talons, and strong feet to capture and kill prey. Meanwhile vultures seek either already dead or freshly killed animals, as we encountered that morning. Vultures’ primary challenges are to find carcasses, or accompany someone who recently killed prey and will share it with them. This means there is a need for an “intermediate agent” that can make the carcasses available to vultures— either a hunter, animal disease, lack of nutrition, and/or injuries. But mortality due to these factors is unpredictable and relatively low for livestock under human nurture. Especially in the summer and fall, mortality is much lower since most animals are refreshed and stronger from the peak of grass growth on the Mongolian steppe. Therefore, hoping to find a dead animal is serious business for vultures and extremely seasonal. This is probably why we see increased food searching of vultures over vast areas during the summer months. The only agent that can predictably supply food year around for scavengers is a predator.

After months of discussions with herders and our own observations, we have learned that wolves are one of the most important “agents” to have around for the sake of vultures. Only wolves can make that previously unavailable food truly and regularly available to vultures. Other scavengers like Bearded Vultures (which consume primarily bone fragments), eagles, badgers, ravens, gulls, wolverines, foxes, and kites, benefit from wolf kills as well. Other sources of food, for example rodents, are the second most important natural food source for raptors and scavengers. But even a marmot, the biggest rodent in body size, is not likely big enough to satisfy hungry 24-pound vultures plus a predator. Only wolves can bring down large prey that is enough to fulfill several vultures.

So we realize that it is becoming very important to preserve natural predators like wolves. Unfortunately, the wolf is the only species in Mongolia that is allowed to be killed year around, because they are “the number one enemy” of sheep herds. Wolves have been fighting back hard for their own survival. Sadly, wolves are powerless against high-speed cars and accurate guns. Should the wolves disappear, I would imagine many vultures and other scavengers would lack food sources during the summer and fall, which are the most critical times during their breeding and rearing of young.

Nyambayar Batbayar and Mark Fuller
Nyambayar Batbayar and Mark Fuller
Later summer, Mark Fuller, my advisor from Boise State University, was present and witnessed another incident of a goat killed by wolves near his camp. He said, “It is unbelievable. A couple of hours ago, wolves killed a goat that belonged to my host family. It happened only 200-300 meters away from us and we didn’t even know it was happening. It is amazing.” For Mark this event captured the essence of the Mongolian steppe where wolves still persist in close contact with humans. Unfortunately there are many human-induced conflicts with the wolves.

Ultimately, all these issues associated with the wolf-carcass-vulture relationship bring out a concern that the survival of vultures and other scavengers cannot be secured without securing survival of wolves. It is an indispensable bond to keep the predator-food-scavenger cycle in balance in a natural way. Herders may not agree with this, but I understand as conservationists we must try to find proper ways to conserve this relationship. I felt very sorry for Dorjoo and his loss of two sheep, although I was a bit happy for those highly opportunistic wolves that got some food and left some for the vultures. Dorjoo was correct. That day at least five vultures and ravens got enough food to keep them full for another several days.

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