The diverse habits of Mongolia—including deserts, steppes, mountains and taiga forests—and lack of humans translates to a wide variety of animal life, including 136 species of mammal, more than 400 species of birds, 76 species of fish, 8 types amphibians and 22 reptiles. Animals found in Mongolia include endangered Mongolian argali sheep, ibex, snow leopards, wolves, and herds of gazelles that can run fast 45mph. Animals encountered on the steppe include wolves, rabbits and antelope.

Among the 28 endangered species of mammal in Mongolia are the argali sheep, ibex, snow leopards and wild ass. The Gobi bear is extremely endangered. Only a few dozen are left. The Pallas cat, a yellowish wildcat about the size of a large house cat, is one of the rarest feline species.

Studies have show that populations of some wild animals has declined markedly since the collapse of the Soviet Union. By some estimated the populations of endangered species—argali sheep, bears, Asiatic wild asses—have dropped by 50 to 90 percent. The Mongolian Constitution states that wildlife is a common resource of all the people. Even so little effort has been to regulate and control hunting and the trade of wild animal furs, hides and body parts.

Mongolia's forests and steppes abounded with animals that were hunted for their fur, meat, and other products in the late 1980s. Fur-bearing animals included marmots, muskrats, squirrels, foxes, korsak (steppe foxes), and wolves, which were hunted, and such animals as deer, sable, and ermine, which were raised on state animal farms. Animal pelts were exported in large numbers. In 1985 Mongolia exported more than 1 million small hides, which included some of the 763,400 marmot pelts, 23,800 squirrel skins, 3,700 wolf skins, and other furs. Marmot also was hunted for its fat, which was processed industrially. Mongolian gazelles were hunted for their meat, and red deer, for their antler velvet. Organized hunting of wild sheep was a foreign tourist attraction. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

Book: Mongolia’s Wild Heritage (1999) by Christopher Finch.

Wild Animals in Different Regions of Mongolia

Natural vegetation in the Altai region includes steppe grasses, shrubs and bushes and light forests of birch, fir, aspen, cherry, spruce, and pines, with many clearings in the forest. These forest merge with a modified taiga. Among the animals are hare, mountain sheep, several species of deer, bobac, East European woodchucks, lynx, polecat, snow leopard, wolves, bears, Argali sheep, Siberian ibex, mountains goats and deer. Bird species include pheasant, ptarmigan, goose, partridge, Altai snowcock, owls, snipe and jay, In the streams and rivers are trout, grayling and the herring-like sig.

The Mongol word Gobi can mean desert, depression, salt marsh, or steppe, but which usually refers to a category of arid rangeland with insufficient vegetation to support marmots but with enough to support camels. Gobi wildlife includes wild asses, dzeran (Mongolian black and white tail gazelles), argali (wild sheep), snow leopard, steppe fox, Gobi desert bear, desert ibex, cranes, wild camels, eagles, hawks, and buzzards. In some palces there are thousands of gopherlike marmots and black tailed gazelles. Since the early 20th century, the Gobi has been known as one of world's premier dinosaur hunting sites.

Wildlife found in the central and northen forest areas of Mongolia include wolf, wild boar, elk, roe deer, brown bear, wild cat, musk deer, marmot, muskrat, fox, steppe fox and sable. In the lakes there are Dalmatian pelicans, hooded cranes, relict gulls, shelducks and bare-headed geese. The taiga forests are the same as the taiga that dominate Siberia.Trees found here include Siberian larch, which can reach a height of 45 feet, birch trees and Siberian and Scotch pine. As one travels from north to south the forest become slightly less dense.

Khustain Nuruu (60 miles southwest from Ulaan Baatar) is home to Asiatic red deer, wolves, boar, wild cat, wolf, lynx and gazelles. Deer and gazelles are often spotted but sightings of the other animals are rare. The nearly extinct Mongolian wild takhi horse was re-introduced in the grasslands and birch forests here in 1993.

There is a lot of wildlife in the Lake Khovsgol area, including 68 species of mammals, including moose, wolves, bears, sable, marmots and deer, nine species of fish, and scores of bird species, including storks and cranes. The Buriat, Darkand and Tsaatan minorities have traditionally lived around the lake. The Tsaatan reindeer herders have traditionally lived in the mountains to the northwest of the lake. There reindeer are not allowed in the park around the lake because of the damage they cause.

Hunting in Mongolia

Mongolians continue to hunt a wide variety of animals, including wild antelope, rabbits, peasants, ducks, foxes, wolves and marmots. In the mountain areas bears, manul (Asiatic red deer), sable, ermine and wolves are hunted.

By one estimate 250,000 Mongolians out of a population fo 2.9 million are active hunters. In the early and the wildlife trade was estimated to be worth more than $100 million a year, not including the sale of game meat and traditional medicine products. Most often the trade is illegal.

In some markets you can find traders selling hides and furs of wild animals, many of them hunted illegally. On roads to the west of Ulaanbaatar you can signs advertising the skins of marmots, foxes and other wild animals for sale.

In the old days man many foreigners who come to Mongolia were hunters who went after bears, wolves and deer in the Altai mountains. Western Mongolia is regarded by hunters as one of the best places in the world to hunt for wolves and bears and other big game. Wildlife is plentiful. Various travel agencies sponsor hunting and fishing trips. In the 1980s, hunters paid $16,000 a head for state-run hunts in which hunters were promised an ibex and a wild argali sheep. The hunts include guides, hunting ger, cooks, a jeep and driver.

Poaching in Mongolia

Poaching and hunting of endangered species is a problem in Mongolia. Bears are hunted for their gall bladders, musk deer for their glands and snow leopards for their bones to supply the Chinese medicine market. The government annually hands out licenses to hunt 300 ibex and 40 argali sheep. The feess earned the government $500,000 in the early 2000s.

The poaching problem is blamed on ineffective laws, poor enforcement and corruption “at all management levels.” According to study entitled The Silent Steppe: The Illegal Wildlife Trade Crisis in Mongolia one of the biggest problems was the decline of the economy after and poor enforcement after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The study said: “virtually everyone was looking for a way out of this sudden poverty and, for many, wildlife, now unprotected, provided the answer.” The report went on to say, “Neighboring countries, especially China, have been the happy recipients of this new stream of wildlife product, consuming millions of animals every years and generating uncounted profits”

Mongolia is so huge it is difficult to police the entire country. Rangers are believed to have been involved in some of the poaching. Experts think their best hope is enforcing tougher legislation aimed at curbing demand by controlling trade in animal products.

See Different Animals Below.

Wild Bactrian Camels

There are fewer than 900 wild Bactrian camels remaining in the wild. They live in three small populations: 1) one on the Mongolian-China border; 2) far western China; and 3) in the Kum Tagh desert. They are threatened by poaching, wolves and illegal mining. Some illegal miners have placed explosives at water holes to blow up camels.

Ancestors of the domestic camel, wild Bactrian camels are slimmer and less wooly and have smaller conical humps than domesticated Bactrian camels. They stand 172 centimeters at the shoulder. Males weigh 600 kilograms and females weigh 450 kilograms. They eat grasses, leaves and shrubs.

Wild Bactrian camels live on the arid plains, hills and desert in Mongolia and China. They can survive on shrubby plants and no water for 10 days. They follow migratory paths across the desert to oasis and feed in tall grasses.

Female Bactrian camels travel in small groups with six to 20 members. Males are often solitary but will unite with a female group in the mating season if strong enough to fend off rivals. During the the rutting season males puff out their cheeks, toss their heads, slobber and grind their teeth. Mother Bactrian camels give birth alone. The gestation period is 13 months. Usually one calf, sometimes two, are born. Young can walk almost immediately. After about a month of seclusion mother and young join the group with other females. Young nurse for one to two years.

Przewalski's Horse

The Przewalski's horse, also known as the wild Asiatic horse or takhi, is the only true wild horse left in the world and the last remaining species of wild horse. It is found almost exclusively in zoos although some have been reintroduced to Mongolia. [Source: Natural History, July 2002]

Przewalski's horses are small and stocky and look somewhat like mules. The closest living relative of the domestic horse, they are 2.2 to 2.6 meters in length, with a 80- to 110-centimeter-long tail, and weigh 200 to 300 kilograms. They are rusty brown to beige in color, with dark brown lower legs. Although they have different numbers of chromosomes they are the only members of the equid family capable of producing fertile offspring if interbred with domesticated horses.

Przewalski's horses are named after a 19th century Russian-Polish explorer, who brought some skins from the animal to Russia. He was born in Smolensk in 1839. He traveled extensively in the Russian Far East, Mongolia, Western China, Tibet and Central Asia. He was one of the first Westerners to meet the Dalai Lama and served as an agent for the Russians in the Great Game. The Przewalski's horse was named after him. He died in what is now Kyrgyzstan in 1888.

Przewalski's horses are markedly different from domestic horses and regarded as a different species. They have several characteristics that are closer to the prehistoric ancestors of horses than to domesticated horses. They have a short neck, short back, stubby legs and a thin tail base and have a short mane and forelock. During the summer zebra-like stripes appear on its legs.

Przewalski's horses used roam the steppes and deserts of Mongolia, northern China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. They were depicted in wall paintings but were considered too wild to domesticate and were pursued only for food. Another kind of horse was selected for domestication.

Przewalski's Horse Behavior

Like wild domesticated horses, Przewalski's horses form cohesive, long-term herds and social groups consisting of a stallion, his harem of mares and their offspring. They establish home ranges and stay close to them but wander great distances to feed on grass, leaves and buds. A typical herd of social group consists of a senior mare, two to four other mares and their offspring and a stallion who stays on he periphery. A single foal is born after a gestation period of 333 to 345 days.

The stallion and his mares travel three to six miles a day, and spend their time grazing, dozing, mud-bathing, and drinking from streams and natural springs. They cluster together at night and sleep for about four hours. Social grooming is important as it is with other wild horses as a means of bonding among herd members. Usually two animals stand nose to tail so they can be on the look out for danger in both directions, nibbling each other's shoulders and whithers. Their tails serves as convenient fly swatters.

Fillies are often harassed by their fathers. This begins happening when they around two years old and that is around the time they leave their harem and begin looking for a new group.

Young males mature more slowly. At around the age of three they begin harassing females in estrus the groups and are forced to leave. Young males spend a few years in groups with other young males, honing their fighting skills, which are necessary to form a harem of their own from dispersed fillies, steal fillies or challenge a stallion for possession of his harem.

Returning Przewalski's Horses to the Wild

Przewalski's horses, which used to roam across Mongolia, western China and Central Asia in great herds, have been extinct in the wild since the 1960s. They were hunted and poached for their meat. The last wild one was spotted in the Gobi Desert in 1960. All Przewalski's horses living today are offspring of 15 animals, including three stallions, caught near the turn of the 20th century. Fortunately they bred well in captivity and the breeding was carefully done through zoos and private herds owned by aristocrats so that there was little inbreeding. None of Przewalski's horses are completely pure though. They all have a little domestic horse blood in them but the amount is negligible.

By 1992, the population of Przewalski's horses in zoos had reached 1,000 and it was feasible to reintroduce some of them to the wild. In 1993 the firs Przewalski's horses were reintroduced to the Hustain Nuruu Steppe Reserve (now Hustain or Khustai National Park), about 60 miles from Ulaanbaatar . The reintroduced horses stuck so stubbornly to the home ranges they established around their release sites that reintroduction had to take place over a widely scattered area to reduce competition at the home ranges.

About 50 horses were initially released. They have been monitored by conservationist. Problems include wolves and undrinkable frozen water in the winter. Newly released horses are kept in a fenced area until they become acclimated and then they are allowed to run wild and suffers the fate of wild animals. Each year about five foals are killed by wolves.

By the early 2000s, there were about 170 Przewalski's horses, about half of them wild born, with 107 in Khustai National Park and 59 in Takhin Tal. Some groups are elusive and stay in the birch forests. Other come to research centers at night for protection against wolves.

Gazelles, Deer and Wild Asses in Mongolia

Hundreds of thousands of white tailed gazelle, blacktailed gazelle and saiga antelope can be seen, especially in eastern Mongolia. In one area there are 2 million gazelles and only 70,000 people. In some places there are herds of white tailed gazelles with 20,000 animals. The top speed of the Gobi gazelle is 60 miles per hour.

Poaching has been a problem. The gazelles are valued for their meat, horns and skins. In 1942, 100,000 of them were killed by Russian soldiers and poaching continues at a rate of about one a day. Sometimes they are killed with submachine guns to supply the Chinese medicine market.

The population of red deer in Mongolia declined by 92 percent between 1987 and 2005. In the Soviet era, deer were kept at the Swift River State Deer Farm near Ulaanbaatar. The animals were periodically rounded up and their antlers were cut off and ground n Chinese medicine.

The number of saiga antelopes declined from 5,000 in 1990 to fewer than 800 in the early 2000s as a result of hunting and poaching. Their horns are valued in traditional Chinese medicines. It is estimated that the numbers of Argali sheep, which have fine curling horns, declined by 75 percent between 1989 and 2005.

The khulan, or Asiatic wild ass, is one of only three species of wild ass left in the wild. Smaller than a horse but larger than a donkey, they were once seen throughout Mongolia but now are fewer in number and live in a more limited range. It was estimated that there were 23,000 of them in 2003. Their numbers are believed to have declined at a rate of about 10 percent a year since then primarily as a result of hunting, poachinh and bitterly cold winters. Khulan meat is processed into sausage. Herders reportedly are not too upset to see the animals go because they eat grass that herders would like their livestock to eat.

Small Mammals in Mongolia

Danny Yee wrote in his travel blog: “ Mongolia has a plethora of rodents, the identification of which I found rather confusing. Marmots (Mongolian tarvaga, Bobac or Steppe Marmot, Marmota bobac) are clear enough — they are bigger than anything else, almost wombat-sized. The smaller burrowing mammals we saw either were "Mongolian hamsters" (zuram) or long-tailed souslik (gozooroi zuram). The guidebook to Gobi Gurvansaikhan national park says there are 18 species of pika at Yolyn Am. And then there are jerboa and voles.” There are ground squirrels. “I saw a larger tree squirrel at Khovsgol, and several hares as well. At one point the van I wasn't in saw a silver fox cross the road. We didn't see any wolves, but we did see a sheep that had been killed by one, barely 20 metres from the ger I was sleeping in. I saw a pine marten at Manshir, and a hedgehog at Juuchin Gobi ger camp. [Dinets says silver foxes and martens are very rare in Mongolia, and that the animals we saw were probably a corsac fox and a sable.][Source:]

Marmots are rodents with behavior similar to prairie dogs. They were once plentiful in the plains and hills but their numbers have sharply declined as a result of hunting and poaching. It was estimated that there were once 40 million of them. In 1990 there were an estimated 20 million of them. In 2002 a survey counted only 5 million, a decline of 75 percent in 12 years. Many are said to have ended up in China where they sell for $10 a piece and are stitched in with sable on sable coats.

The Pallas's pika (Ochotona pallasi), also known as the Mongolian pika, is a species of mammal in the pika family, Ochotonidae. It is found mainly in the mountains of western Mongolia. There are four subspecies: O. p. pricei, O. p. hamica, O. p. helanshanensis and O. p. sundica. One notable difference is that O. p. pricei generally dwells in dry steppe habitats and may build burrows while the other subspecies tend to prefer rocky habitats. However, none of the subspecies live strictly in either sort of habitat. Like other pikas, Pallas's pika is herbivorous and saves grass in the summer to eat in the winter. It often constructs haypiles with this stash, but some populations prefer to keep their stores under rocks.Pallas's pika usually has several litters of between one and thirteen offspring during each mating season. Mating habits may vary based on the population size in the area that year. As a species, Pallas's pika is common. However, O. p. hamica, O. p. helanshanensis and O. p. sundica are rated as "critically endangered" and "endangered", respectively, on the IUCN Red List. [Source: Wikipedia]

Hedgehogs in the Gobi have large ears to dissipate heat. A dense network of tiny blood vessels run close to the surface of the skin in ears.

See Separate Articles on PIKAS and MARMOTS Under Central Asian Animals

Plants in Mongolia

Trees found in northern and central here include Siberian larch, which can reach a height of 45 feet, birch trees and Siberian and Scotch pine. As one travels from north to south the forest become slightly less dense. Natural vegetation in the Altai region includes steppe grasses, shrubs and bushes and light forests of birch, fir, aspen, cherry, spruce, and pines, with many clearings in the forest. These forest merge with a modified taiga.

Steppes are covered mostly by sparse grass or grasses and shrubs such as saxual. Trees are often stunted. Large trunks, branches and leaves require a lot of water to maintain. When the steppes meet the foot foothills, you can find wild poppies, even wild opium poppies.

The grass family is one of the largest in the plant kingdom, embracing some 10,000 different species worldwide. Contrary to what you might think, grasses are fairly complex plants. What you see are only their leaves.

Grass flowers are often not recognizable as such. Because grasses rely on the breeze to distribute pollen (there is a usually lots of wind on the steppe) and they don't need colorful flowers to attract pollinators such as birds and bees. Grass flowers have scales instead of pedals and grow in clusters on special tall stems that lift them high enough to be carried by the wind.

Grasses need lots of sunlight. They do not grow well in forests or other shady areas. Tall feather grass grows well in the well-watered parts of the steppe. Shorter grass grows better in the dry steppe where there is less rainfall. Chiy, a grass with cane-like reeds, is used by nomads to make decorative screens in the yurts

Grasses can tolerate lack of rain, intense sunlight, strong winds, shredding from lawnmowers, the cleats of Athletes and the hooves of grazing animals. They can survive fires: only their leaves burn; the root stocks are rarely damaged.

The ability of grass to endure such harsh conditions lies in the structures of its leaves, The leaves of other plants spring from buds and have a developed a network of veins that carry sap and expand into the leaf. If a leaf is damaged a plant can seal its veins with sap but do little else. Grass leaves on the other hand don't have a network of veins, rather they have unbranched veins that grow straight, and can tolerate being cut, broken or damaged, and keep growing.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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