Like most people in Mongolia’s South Gobi, Davaa only goes by his first name. In his case, that’s more than enough. Talk to herders in the Tost Mountains about nature and wildlife, and you’ll hear his name over and over again.
“We don’t have problems with wolves here because Davaa is an exceptional ranger. If he sees the wolves or signs of wolves in the area he tells us and we avoid going there. He’s saved us many a livestock death”, one herder said when our research team asked him about conflicts with wolves during a recent visit.
“You know, when it is very dry and there isn’t enough water, Davaa carries water on his back, up the steep slopes of the mountain, for the wildlife”, another herder told them.
Davaa has been a herder his whole life. He’s also always had a soft spot for wildlife, and a wealth of knowledge about the Gobi’s unique ecosystem. When our team from the Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation (SLCF) asked the community to nominate a handful of local people to be trained as Community Wildlife Rangers, Davaa’s name was the first to be suggested, and he was selected unanimously.
“We asked the community to select rangers that can help us with our conservation projects in the Tost mountains. We train these community rangers to help monitor wild ungulate populations, take part in snow leopard surveys, and most importantly, patrol their areas to prevent poaching”, explains Puji Lkhagvajav, an SLCF researcher.
“The more closely we can involve the community in conservation, the more we encourage local stewardship of wildlife better human-nature interactions”, she adds.
Davaa quickly proved to be a perfect fit for this role. When he herds his livestock, he keeps his keen eye out for signs of wild herbivores. He has one eye on the permanent argali population in his range, and another equally observant eye on the ibex. “When we were recently speaking with him, he was worried that the ibex had not been seen in a while”, Puji says.
One of Davaa’s most remarkable achievements was that he convinced all the herders in his range to stop collecting Saxual – a tree-like shrub found across the Gobi that has traditionally been used for heating, but has been dramatically over-harvested in recent years.
“Saxual has been the main source of heating for generations”, Puji says, “and heating is essential here”. Despite its billing as a desert, the Gobi is among the coldest inhabited places on earth, with winter temperatures plummeting to an unimaginable -40C.
“At these temperatures, we need a new definition for cold. The cold seeps through your skin, to your bones. It is painful just to breathe and everything freezes, including your phlegm”, says Ranjini Murali, and Indian ecologist and researcher who has spent parts of the last winter working in Tost with her Mongolian colleagues.
“The Gobi has very few trees, so firewood is hard to come by”, explains Ranjini. “You’ll only find small, dry twigs that burn away too fast and produce little heat. In this treeless expanse, Saxual is the closest to thick, slow-burning wood, so naturally it has been collected for centuries as essential fuel to survive the harsh winter.”
Saxual is more than a good source of heat though – it also plays a very important role in the local ecosystem. It’s the sole tree well-adapted to growing in the water-scarce Gobi. It has an extensive root system that can be as deep as 30 feet. It is this root system that holds the sandy soil together preventing erosion and helps stabilize the sand dunes.
But with the sustained collection over so many years, Saxual has been drastically reduced across much of the Gobi range – in the last 25 years alone, 50% of the Gobi’s Saxual are reported to have disappeared.
The consequences of this unsustainable harvesting are starting to show. There has been increased soil erosion, more frequent dust storms, and growing fears of speeding desertification. Eventually, these processes could seriously threaten the area’s wildlife and economy. If pastures erode too much, there will eventually not be enough grass left to feed either livestock or wild herbivores like the ibex.
Recognizing this, the Mongolian government has banned the collection of Saxual, but enforcement of the ban in this remote corner of the country has proven difficult – until the new Community Rangers stepped in. Led by Davaa, the rangers have patiently begun to explain to their fellow herders how important Saxual is for the ecosystem they all depend on, and what an impact that sustained collection was having on the Gobi Desert. Understanding this, the community has completely stopped the collection of Saxual under Davaa’s watch.
“Earlier we used to fill the back of our trucks with Saxual wood and burn it through the year. But since Davaa has told us about it, we have stopped and use alternative fuel like livestock dung and look for smaller wood”, one local herder said.
“This is such an impressive feat! Firewood is very limited here, and other fuel alternatives are few. And still, Davaa and his fellow community rangers managed to being about the change – not by force or coercion, but with arguments”, Puji says. “It shows what a huge impact local conservation champions like Davaa can have in their communities.”