BIRDS, FISH AND SNAKES IN MONGOLIA

BIRDS IN MONGOLIA

Mongolia is home to more than 400 bird species. The most visible wild animals in Mongolia are huge hawks and kites perched in the grass. In the mountains you can find ptarmigan, finch, woodpecker, lammergeyers and Altai woodcock. In the lakes there are Dalmatian pelicans, hooded cranes, relict gulls, shelducks and bare-headed geese. In the Gobi desert you can see desert warbler, houbara bustard, saxaul sparrow, sandgoose, finch, cinereous vulture and many more.

In the steppes you can find Mongolian larks, demoiselle cranes, a variety of hoopoes, golden eagle, upland buzzard, great bustards (like long necked goose), steppe eagle, condor-size cinereous vultures, black vultures, a variety of falcons, including saker falcons, black kites and variety of owls and hawks.

Eastern Mongolia has one of the largest breeding population of cranes, including hooded and Siberian cranes and the critically endangered white-naped crane, of which only 4,500 remain in the world. Mongolians protect the demoiselle cranes, who often nest and forage near settlements.

Saker Falcons

Saker falcons are among the most prized birds of prey in falconry. They were used by Mongol khans and regarded as descendants of the Huns who had them pictured on their shields. Genghis Khan kept 800 of them and 800 attendants to take care of them and demanded that 50 camel-loads of swans, a favored prey, be delivered every week. According to legend sakers alerted khans to the presence of poisonous snakes. Today they are sought after by Middle Eastern falconers who prize them for their aggression in hunting prey. [Source: Adele Conover, Smithsonian magazine]

Sakers are slower than peregrine falcons but they can still fly at speeds to 150mph. However, they are regarded as the best hunters. They are masters of feints, fake maneuvers and quick strikes. They are able to fool their prey into heading the direction they want them to go. When alarmed saker let out a call that sounds like a cross between a whistle and a screech. Sakers spend their summers in Central Asia. In the winter they migrate to China, the Arab Gulf area and even Africa.

Sakers are close relatives of gyrfalcons. Wild ones feed on small hawks, striped hoopees, pigeons and choughs (crowlike birds) and small rodents. Describing a young male saker hunting a vole, Adele Conover wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “The falcon takes off from perch, and a quarter-mile away it drops down to grab a vole. The force of the impact hurls the vole into the air. The saker circles back to pick up the hapless rodent.”

Sakers don’t make their own nests. They usually hijack the nest of birds, usually other birds of prey or ravens, often on top of boulders or small rises in the steppe or on power line towers or railroad check stations. Usually one or two birds are born. If they are threatened they stay still and play dead.

Fifteen-day-old sakers are puffballs of feathers. Young sakers stay close to their nest, occasionally hopping around nearby rocks, until they fledge when they are 45 days old. They hang around from 20 or 30 more days while the parents gently encourage them to leave. Sometimes siblings will remain together for a while after they leave the nest. Life is hard. About 75 percent of young sakers die in their first autumn or winter. If two birds are born the older one often eats the younger one.

Endangered Saker Falcons and Falconry

A favorite hobby of wealthy businessmen and sheiks from the Persian Gulf is to fly to the deserts of Pakistan with their favorite falcons to hunt the lesser MacQueen's bustard, a hen-sized bird prized as a delicacy and an aphrodisiac which has been hunted extinction in the Middle East.

Rare houbara bustard are also favored prey (See Birds). Winter is favorite time to hunt with sakers. Females are more sought after than males.

In ancient times, saker falcons ranged from the forests of East Asia to the Carpathian Mountains in Hungary. Today the are only found only in Mongolia, China, Central Asia and Siberia. The estimates of the number of sakers in Mongolia ranges from 1,000 to 20,000. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) bans the trade of gyr and peregrine falcons and severely restricts the export of sakers.

According to the convention, Mongolia was allowed to export around 60 birds a year for $2,760 each in the 1990s. Separately, the Mongolian government made a contract with a Saudi prince in 1994 to supply him with 800 non-endangered falcons for two years for $2 million.

Alister Doyle of Reuters wrote: “Saker falcons are among those exploited to the brink of extinction, he said. In the wild in Kazakhstan, for instance, one estimate was that there were just 100-400 pairs of Saker falcon left, down from 3,000-5,000 before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The UCR (www.savethefalcons.org), funded by public, private and corporate donors, wants Washington to impose limited trade sanctions on Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kazakhstan and Mongolia for failing to stamp out the trade. [Source: Alister Doyle, Reuters, April 21, 2006]

Scientist and conservationist have worked hard to save saker falcons. In Mongolia, scientist have built nesting sites for sakers. Unfortunately these sites are often visited by poachers. Sakers have successfully bred in captivity in Kazakhstan and Wales.

Saker Falcon Smuggling

Saker falcons sell for up to $200,000 on the black market and have earned the name “feathered cocaine.” On the streets of Ulaanbaatar gentle-looking men sometimes approach foreigners and ask them if they want to buy young sake falcons. A typical bird sells around $2,000 to $5,000. Buyers prefer experienced hunters but sometimes buy young fledglings.

In Mongolia, there are stories of smugglers trying get sakers out of the country by dousing them with vodka to keep them quiet and hiding them in their coats. In 1999, a sheik from Bahrain was caught trying to smuggle 19 falcons through Cairo’s airport. A Syrian was caught at the Novosibirsk airport with 47 sakers hidden in boxes bound for the United Arab Emirates.

In 2006, Alister Doyle of Reuters wrote: “Smuggling is driving many species of falcon towards extinction in an illicit market where prized birds can sell for a million dollars each, an expert said. The black market in birds of prey, centred around the Middle East and Central Asia, can yield bigger profits than selling drugs or weapons, according to the U.S.-based Union for the Conservation of Raptors (UCR). "Imagine having something weighing 2 lb (1 kg) on your hand that can sell for a million dollars," UCR chief Alan Howell Parrot told Reuters of the most prized falcons. [Source: Alister Doyle, Reuters, April 21, 2006]

“He estimated smuggling of raptors peaked in 2001 with 14,000 birds, ranging from eagles to hawks. "The illicit trade has gone down dramatically, not because of law enforcement, but because the falcons don't exist any more," he said. Parrot said smugglers often skirted controls by travelling to falconry camps abroad with farmed birds. These, he said, were then freed, replaced with more valuable wild birds and re-imported. "You enter with 20 birds and leave with 20 — but they're not the same birds," he said. "The starting price is $20,000 and they can go for more than $1 million," he said. "Perhaps 90-95 percent of the trade is illicit."

“Another way to catch falcons was to attach a satellite transmitter to a wild bird and then release it -- hoping that it would eventually guide you to a nest and valuable eggs. He said farmed birds usually failed to learn how to hunt prey when released to the wild because captivity did not give harsh enough training. "It's the same with people. If you take someone from Manhattan and put them in Alaska or Siberia and they will be running around trying to dial 911," he said, referring to the U.S. emergency services phone number. "Only one in 10 farmed falcons can hunt well. You buy many and use the other nine as live bait to help catch wild falcons," he said.

Houbara Bustard, the Favored Sake Falcon Prey

The Houbara bustard is a large bird that is found in semi-deserts and steppes in North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. They have black patches on their necks and wings and reach 65 to 78 centimeters in length and have a wingspan of up to five feet. Males weigh 1.8 to 3.2 kilograms. Females weigh 1.2 to 1.7 kilograms. [Source: Philip Seldon, Natural History, June 2001]

Houbara bustards are well suited for their environment. They are well camouflaged and do not need to drink (they get all the water they need from their food). Their diet is extremely varied. They eat lizards, insects, berries and green shoots and are preyed upon by foxes. Although they have strong wings and are capable fliers they prefer to walk partly, it seems, because they’re are so hard to see when they are on the ground.

Bustards are long-legged, short-toed, broad-wing birds that live in the desert, grasslands of brushy plains of the Old World. Most of the 22 species are native to Africa. They usually are brown in color and duck when alarmed and are difficult to see. Males are generally much larger than females and they are famous for their bizarre courtship displays which often involve inflating sacs and elongating their neck feathers.

Male Houbara bustard are solitary during the nesting season. Females incubate the eggs and raise the young. Male Houbara bustard defend a large territory during the breeding season. They perform dramatic courtship displays with their crown feathers ruffled and white breast plumes sticking out and dances around doing a high-stepped trot. A mother usually raises two or three chicks, which stay with the mother for about three months even though they can fly short distances after a month. The mother teaches the chicks how to recognize dangers such as foxes.

Saving Endangered Houbara Bustard

There are an estimated 100,000 Houbara bustard. Their numbers have been reduced by loss of habitat and hunting. Many Arabs love the taste of their meat and enjoy hunting them with falcons. Their fighting spirit and strong flight of the Houbara bustard makes them attractive targets for falconers. They are generally much larger than the falcons that attack them.

In 1986, Saudi Arabia began a conservation program to save Houbara bustards. Large protected areas were established. Houbara bustards are captively bred at the National Wildlife Research Center in Taif, Saudi Arabia. Female bustards are artificially inseminated and the chicks are hand-raised and then released. The goal is to reestablish a healthy population in the wild. The main problems are preparing them to find food and escape predators.

After they are 30 to 45 days old, Houbara bustards are released into a special predator-free enclosure where they learn to find food. Once they are ready they can simply fly out of the enclosure into the desert. Many of the captively-raised birds have been killed by foxes. An effort has been made to trap the foxes and move them away but this did not decrease the death rate of the birds. Conservationists have more success with three-minute training sessions in which young caged bustards are exposed to a trained fox outside the cage. These birds had a higher survival rate than non-trained birds.

Venomous Snakes in Mongolia

: Halys’ Viper

Nine species of snake are found in Mongolia. Four of them are poisonous: Halys viper, common European viper, Orsini’s viper and the small taphrometaphon lineolatum. [Source: Lonely Planet]

Halys’ Viper Description: Medium-sized, rather stout-bodied, terrestrial pitviper, adults usually 55-70 centimeters long (max. 90 centimeters). Body pale gray, olive, yellowish or dark brown; marked dark gray crossbands with light olive or pale yellowish intervals between. Belly gray to dark gray with indistinct darker spots. Tail short, its tip yellowish, dark brown or black. Snout rounded, sometimes slightly upturned at tip. [Source: Armed Forces Pest Management Board afpmb.org ]

Common Names: Asian pitviper, Alsashan pitviper, Bohme's pitviper, Caucasan pitviper, Gobi pitviper, Halys' viper, Halys' pitviper, Karaganda pitviper, Mumushi, Pallas' viper, Siberian mumushi, Siberian pitviper, Halys-Grubenotter, Halyskaarme, Halysorm, Vipere Halys, Mokasyn hali. Family: Viperidae: Scientific Names: Gloydius halys, Ancistrodon halys cognatus, A. h. stejnegeri, Agkistrodon blomhoffi affinis, A. halys, A. h. affinis, A. h. caraganus, A. h. caucasicus, Coluber halys, Gloydius halys affinis, G. h. boehmei, G. h. caraganus, G. h. caucasicus, G. h. cognatus, G. h. halys, G. h. mogoi, G. h. liupanensis, G. h. stejnegeri, Trygonocephalus affinis, T. caraganus, T. halys, T. h. halys.

Habitat: Typically found in dry, rocky areas, from desert shrub to short grass or wooded steppes, coniferous forests, and in mountainous areas usually found at 500-4,000 m elevation. Widely distributed at higher elevations in central and southwestern Asia and Iran.

Activity and Behavior: Mainly terrestrial and nocturnal. During warmer months, emerges only after sunset. Reports vary as to aggressiveness. Some say it usually will not strike unless repeatedly disturbed or hurt; others say it will bite with only minor provocation. Ovoviviparous (Clutch size not reported), mainly prey on small mammals and birds.

Venom Characteristics: Mainly hemotoxic with neurotoxic factors. Envenomation usually causes sharp pain at site, followed by edema and necrosis. May develop blood-filled blisters at bite site. Heart rate and blood pressure usually increase. Human deaths are uncommon and usually due to respiratory problems.

European Viper

Description: Short, with fairly-stout body, a bit flattened dorso-ventrally, adults avg. 55 centimeters (max. 90 centimeters) long, dorsal scales strongly keeled, in 21 midbody rows. Body color varies by geographic location. Males usually smaller and lighter, gray with more vivid black zig-zag dorsal pattern; females usually larger and darker; usually light-brown with dark brown zig-zag dorsal pattern. Juveniles usually red-brown with darker dorsal zig-zag pattern. [Source: Armed Forces Pest Management Board afpmb.org ]

1) Common Names: Northern cross adder, common adder, cross adder, adder, European viper, Kreuzotter, northern viper, vipera rossa, Vipera Peliade, Balkan cross adder, Iberian cross adder. 2) Family: Viperidae. Scientific Names: Vipera berus, Berus vulgaris, Coluber berus, Chersea vulgaris, Pelias berus, Vipera berus berus, V. b. bosniensis, V. b. pseudoaspis, V. b. sachalinensis, V. b. soeonei, Vipera seoanei (in part).

Found in diverse habitats, like rocky or bushy hillsides, open fields, woods, shady areas, moors, swamps, marshes, and bogs. In northern parts of range, found mainly near sea level; to nearly 3,000 m elevation in southern parts of range. Most wide-spread species of viper in the world. Found in suitable habitats throughout most of Europe and Asia; from the Arctic Circle to below 40 degrees North latitude, and from 5 to 145 degrees East longitude.

Activity and Behavior: Mainly diurnal in cold months; nocturnal in warm months. Cold-adapted in northern range, may crawl over melting snow in Spring. Basking behavior is complex. Mainly terrestrial, but climbs low bushes. Generally timid; not aggressive. Tends to freeze when danger present; but easily alarmed and bites if threatened or stepped on. Usually congregates into groups ("colonies") during annual hibernation (in rocky dens) during cold months. Mainly eats available small mammals and birds.

Venom Characteristics: Mainly hemotoxic, with neurotoxic factors. Envenomation usually causes sharp pain or severe burning at bite site, followed by swelling and inflammation of lymph system. Victim usually develops nausea, headaches, vomiting, chest pains and labored breathing. Humans are sometimes bitten, and fatalities have been reported, but are not common.

Orsini’s Viper

Description: Smallest true viper found in Europe, adults fairly slender, usually 40-50 centimeters long (max. 80 centimeters). Body usually gray, yellowish, greenish, or light brown. Belly light or dark gray, maybe with yellow markings or small dark spots. All-black specimens occur. Dorsal (vertebral) pattern usually dark, wavy, zig-zag line with black edges, sometimes discontinuous; flanks usually darker than middle of back, 19 midbody dorsal scale rows. Snout rounded, slightly upturned. Females larger than males. [Source: Armed Forces Pest Management Board afpmb.org ]

Common Names: Orsini’s viper, Steppe viper, meadow viper, field viper, Vipere d'Orsini, Vipers-de-Stepa, Wiesenotter, Ostromunucesta, karst viper, Italian meadow viper, Danubian meadow viper, French meadow viper, Ebner's viper (for a subspecies), Wettstein's viper (for a subspecies). Family: Viperidae. Scientific Names: Vipera ursinii, Pelias ursinii, Vipera ursinii ebneri, V. u. graeca. V. u. macrops, V. u. moldavica, V. u. rakosiensis, V. u. renardi, V. u. ursinii, V. u. wettsteini

Habitat: Found mainly in dry plains, grasslands, flatlands with few trees or bushes, and montane grasslands; more common at higher elevations (i.e., 2,000-3,000 meters). Also found on wooded hillsides in mountainous regions. Generally seeks open areas on limestone slopes, near dry clay or loamy soil (found on some sandy islands in the Danube River delta). Often hides in rodent dens and small animal burrows.

Activity and Behavior: Mainly diurnal, but may be nocturnal during hot summer months. More active than most other vipers; can move rapidly. Hibernates in aggregated groups ("colonies") during winter months. Not aggressive; usually avoids humans. Seldom bites, even when bothered, but will bite if continuously molested. Ovoviviparous with usually 5-8 young in a litter (18 for one captive-reared female). Eats mainly beetles, grasshoppers, lizards and small rodents.

Venom Characteristics: Mildly hemotoxic. Rarely encountered by people in recent years. Rare cases of known human envenomation by this species have caused mainly local pain and swelling, followed by dizziness and nausea. Recovery is usually relatively rapid. No human fatalities reported, so far.

Fishing in Mongolia

Mongolia has good fishing for lenok (a type of trout), grayling, sturgeon, perch and pike in its many rivers and deep lakes. The main fishing season is in September and October after the short rainy season. People also fish in August.

The taimen is a monstrous man-size fish found in rivers in Siberia and northern Mongolia. Specimens over five feet long have been reported. A relative of the Atlantic salmon, this fish is so large that anglers sometimes use live squirrels and teddy bears as bait. People have seen them swallow ducks and marmots whole. Some consider the taimen as a candidate for the world’s largest freshwater fish. There are catch and release rules for the taimen and other endangered fish.

The main fishing areas in northern are westestern Mongolia near the Russian border. They include the Selenge river (near the Russian-Mongolia border), the Chuluut river, Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur (or Great White Lake in Arkangai) and the Kharaa river in Overkhangai. Some of the best fishing is found on Lake Khovsgol, on the Shisshigt, Egiin, Dleger Moron and at a point where the Cluluut, Selenge, Delger Moron, Bugsei and Ider rivers converge.

Taimen

The taimen is the largest member of the salmonid family, which also includes trout and salmon. According to National Geographic: These fish are fierce predators that sometimes chase their prey in packs, a practice that earned them the nickname "river wolves." They have gray-green heads with streamlined, reddish-brown bodies. And they can be enormous, with particularly large specimens reaching six feet (two meters) long. [Source: National Geographic]

Taimen, also called giant Eurasian trout, are notoriously voracious and have a varied diet that includes primarily fish, but also ducks and even mammals like rats or bats. These insatiable fish will also prey upon one another. Some large taimen are known to have suffocated while trying to swallow a slightly smaller member of their own species.

This riverine behemoth is revered by many Mongolian Buddhists as the child of an ancient river spirit, and it has long enjoyed relative peace in Mongolia, where the nomadic culture has traditionally eschewed fishing. But shifting lifestyles in modernizing Mongolia have meant more logging, mining, and grazing, which have harmed water quality in the taimen's range. And fishing, which has driven the taimen to near extinction in China, is beginning to take a toll in Mongolia.

Today recreational taimen fishing has become an international drawing card and a significant revenue source for regional economies. Mongolian officials, together with several nonprofit organizations, are trying to find a balance to curb poaching yet promote regulated fishing and the revenue it brings.

According to the International Game Fish Association (IGFA) the world record for a taimen is 41.95 kilograms (92.5 pounds) with a length of 156 cm. The maximum length is about 150 to 180 cm (59 to 71 in). According to National Geographic, the largest recorded taimen ever caught weighed 105 kilograms (231 pounds) and was 210 centimeters (83 inches) long.

Tracking Down the Taimen in Mongolia

Taimen once swam in rivers from the Russian Pacific Coast westward throughout the former Soviet Union and Mongolia. Today they have been wiped out from much of their range, and significant populations remain only in Russia and Mongolia.

Zeb Hogan, a fisheries biologist with the University of Reno in Nevada, went to Mongolia to track down the taimen for his National Geographic series on the world's largest freshwater fishes. Stefan Lovgren wrote in National Geographic News, “Hucho taimen may be known to the Chinese as "the river god's daughter," but in this remote corner of northern Mongolia, the world's largest trout has long been king. A ferocious and even cannibalistic predator, taimen can grow more than six feet (up to two meters) in length and can weigh up to 200 pounds (91 kilograms). [Source: Stefan Lovgren, National Geographic News, November 14, 2007]

But like many other freshwater giants around the world, the taimen is now threatened with extinction. Scientists last month wrapped up a four-year study of the fish in a 60-mile (100-kilometer) stretch of the Eg and Uur rivers. Their results show that the taimen, also known as the giant Eurasian trout, is now too rare to support sustained commercial or recreational harvest.

"This fish is not like other trout and salmon species," said Zeb Hogan, Waist-deep in the clear, fast-moving waters of the Eg, Hogan prepared to release a newly tagged, 44-inch-long (112-centimeter-long) taimen back into the river. The fish, which takes up to nine years to fully mature, can live for 50 years, said Hogan, who is a National Geographic Society Emerging Explorer. "We only see a few animals this size per mile in the river, so if you remove one of them, it's going to take a long time before it can be replaced," he said.

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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