Mongolia can be roughly divided into three zones: grassland and shrubs (52% of the country), forests (15%) and desert vegetation (32%). Less than 1% of the country is used for human settlements and crop cultivation. Grasslands are used extensively for grazing, and despite the vast expanses, overgrazing is not uncommon.
Forests of Siberian larch (sometimes up to 45m high), Siberian and Scotch pine, and white and ground birch are regularly cut down for fuel and building, and are affected by mining and agriculture. In the Gobi, the saxaul shrub covers millions of hectares. Although it has virtually no leaves, the saxaul is highly adaptable and protects the environment from degradation and erosion, while providing protection and shade for animals.
Khentii province and some other parts of central Mongolia are famous for the effusion of red, yellow and purple wildflowers, mainly rhododendrons and edelweiss. Extensive grazing is the major threat to Mongolia’s flowers, trees and shrubs: over 200 species are endangered.
1996 Fires. For several months in the middle of 1996, 14 of the 18 aimags were seriously affected by nearly 400 forest fires. In the hardest hit areas of Tov, Khovsgol and Arkhangai, about 27 people died and nearly 600,000 precious livestock were killed throughout the country.
Tragically, the fires were almost certainly caused by human negligence: hunters smoking marmots out of their holes, nomads who had not extinguished their campfires properly, or children playing with matches. The disaster was prolonged by the country's severe lack of infrastructure to cope (for example, there are only four functioning helicopters in the country), vast distances, lack of qualified firefighters (90,000 professionals were brought in from Russia, Japan and the US) and delayed summer rains.
An estimated one quarter (about 80,000 sq km) of the country's forests were destroyed. However, the grass (fodder for so many animals) had grown back quickly, so there is some hope that Mongolia can recover.
Mongolians define themselves as the 'people of five animals': horses, cattle (including yaks), sheep, goats and camels. The odd one out is the reindeer, which is herded in small numbers near the Siberian border.
You will see much more livestock than wildlife. Half of Mongolia's population lives on the land and primarily raises animals, which is why you see so many in the countryside. They are vital to the nomadic way of life, providing milk, meat and skins for clothing, housing and transport, and are a statement of wealth.
Camels are good for long-distance travel and are adaptable, especially in the desert. The hose is the pride of Mongolia, and there are few nomads, if any, who haven't learned to ride as soon as they can walk. Mongolian horses (2.6 million), which are shorter than those in other countries (don't call them ponies - Mongolians will get offended) provide perfect transport, can endure harsh winters and, importantly, produce that much-loved Mongolian drink: fermented mare's milk, known as airag.
Cows and yaks (together, 3.3 million) are best for milk and meat (especially borts, dried and salted meat) and provide hides. Yaks are excellent for transport uphill. Sheep (13.7 million) are easy to herd and provide wool (for housing, clothes and carpets) and meat (the ubiquitous mutton) - every nomadic family wants at least a few sheep. Goats (8.5 million) are often difficult to please, but they are still popular for the meat and, especially, for cashmere wool.
Wildlife flourishes in Mongolia despite an extreme climate, the nomadic fondness for hunting, the communist persecution of Buddhists who had set aside areas as animal sanctuaries, and a penniless government which lacks resources to police nature protection laws.
Despite the lack of water in the Gobi, some species (many of which are endangered) somehow survive: the wild camel, Gobi argali sheep, Gobi bear, ibex and Black-tailed gazelle. In the wide open steppe, you may see the rare Saiga antelope, Mongolian gazelle, wild ass, small jerboa, wolf and millions of furry marmots busy waking up after the last hibernation, or preparing for the next.
Further north in the forest live the wild boar, brown bear, antelope, reindeer, elk, musk deer and moose, as well as plenty of sable and lynx whose furs, unfortunately, are in high demand. Most of the mountains are extremely remote, thus providing an ideal habitat for argali sheep, very rare snow leopards and smaller mammals such as the fox, ermine and hare.
Mongolia is home to over 400 species of birds. In the desert you may see the Desert Warbler, Houbara Bustard and Saxaul Sparrow, as well as sandgrouse, finch and the Cinerous Vulture.
On the steppes, you will certainly see many grey Demoiselle Cranes - the most common bird in Mongolia. Other steppe species include the Upland Buzzard, Steppe Eagle, Black Kite and some assorted owls and hawks. In the mountains, you may be lucky to spot species of ptarmigan finch, woodpecker and owl.
Rivers, as well as dozens of lakes, are home to about 380 species of fish. They include trout, grayling, lennok, sturgeon, pike and perch. Fish even survive in several saltwater lakes in the Gobi, though many have died recently after extreme heat caused evaporation and increased the lakes' saltiness.
Snow Leopards. In the mountains regions of Gov-Altai, the snow leopard manages to survive the harsh environment and avoid poachers and hunters. Up to 50kg in weight and about one metre long (the tail is an extra 70cm), a snow leopard can easily kill an ibex three times its size. You shouldn't be disappointed about not seeing one, but unfortunately, you will probably see many pelts and stuffed animals in the museums.
An estimated 7500 snow leopards live in an area of 1.5 million sq km across China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Nepal and Mongolia (where 1000 to 1500 live). In these countries, education of the local populace and the establishment of several national parks will help protect these creatures from poaching and hunting (farmers shoot snow leopards because they kill livestock while their normal prey, such as marmots, are made scarce from hunting) and from urbanisation.
Camels. Throughout Mongolia, you will see the two-humped Bactrian camel. They were domesticated thousands of years ago and are closely related to the rare wild camel known as the khavtgai. Of the 367,000 camels in the country, two thirds can be found in the five provinces which stretch across the Gobi - 93,000 in Omnogov aimag alone.
Of the five domesticated animals revered by nomads, camels are perfect for long-distance travel in the Gobi, but are slow (they average about 5km per hour); they are easy to manage (a camel can last for over a week without drink and a month without food); they are adaptable (a camel can survive the harshest winter); they can carry a lot of gear (up to 250kg); and they provide wool (an average of 5kg per year), milk (up to 500 litres a year) and meat.
Normally relaxed and seemingly snooty, male camels go crazy during the mating season in January-February - a time to avoid approaching one. If the humps are drooping, the camels are in poor health or need some food or water.
The number of camels is considerably lower than it was in the past years (476,000 in 1992 and 859,000 in 1960). They are being killed for their meat, and many nomads are leaving the harsh Gobi and breeding other livestock. However, several national parks in the Gobi have been established to protect the 300 or so wild khavtgai camels.
The Takhi Horse. The Mongolian wild horse is probably the most recognised and successful symbol of the preservation and protection of Mongolia's diverse and unique wildlife. The takhi, also known as Przewalski's horse (named after the Pole who first took an interest in them), used to roam the countryside in great herds. In the 1960s they became nearly extinct after poachers killed them for meat and overgrazing by livestock as well as development reduced their fodder and breeding grounds.
At the time, only about a dozen takhi remained, living in zoos in Russia and Europe. After special breeding programmes in special parks in Australia, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands, the numbers of takhi outside of Mongolia increased to about 1000.
In the early 1990s, with assistance from international environment agencies, many takhi were reintroduced in to specially protected areas in Khustain Nuruu and Takhiin Tal (in the south Gobi). About 200 takhi now live in these parks or in the wild. They are successfully rearing their young and surviving the harsh winters.
Antelopes & Gazelles. One of the most magnificent sights in Mongolia, especially in the flat and dull eastern provinces, is the hundreds of Black-tailed gazelles and Saiga antelopes, which almost seem to float across the plains.
In one year alone (1942), 100,000 gazelles and antelopes were slaughtered for meat by Russian troops. While wholesale slaughter is now outlawed, they are still at risk from development and mining, but endangered antelopes and the gazelles are being preserved in national parks such as the Eastern Mongolia Strictly Protected Area.
Antelopes are especially prized by Chinese and Mongolians for their meat, skins and horns - each one fetches from 70 to 100 yuan (US$8.50 to US$12). Mongolia has about 300,000 antelopes, but hunting - illegal and legal - continues: in 1996 several Mongolian and Chinese poachers armed with submachine guns were arrested in Dornod.
Khulan. The wild ass is known locally as the khulan, or in Latin, the Equus hemionus. You will never see one because they can run at over 60km per hour and will flee whenever a vehicle approaches; the closest look you will get is the stuffed animal section of the nearest aimag museum.
Khulan are mainly found in the former Soviet Central Asian republics, India and Mongolia, where there has been a recent, serious decline in numbers. Khulan have been illegally slaughtered for food and skins, so several national parks, especially the Dzungarian Strictly Protected Area, have been established to help protect the wild ass.
Ibex. One of the more identifiable Mongolian wild animals is the mountain goat known as the ibex (known in Latin as Capra sibirca). A subspecies of the Alpine ibex found in central Europe, the Asiatic ibex lives in rocky but arid parts of Mongolia, Central Asia and northern India. Slaughtered for their horns, and by hunters for their heads, they have managed to survive in several national reserves throughout Mongolia.
The bearded ibex is tall, has curved horns up to 60cm long and uses its hooves to climb up steep mountains very quickly. Unless you are extremely lucky, or are mountain climbing, you are unlikely to see one (but there is always a stuffed one in the local museum).
Falcons. Falcons, for centuries revered by Mongolians, have greatly decreased in number in the past few decades because of poaching. The falcon will, however, make a comeback. It may be resurrected as the country's national symbol, and Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have agreed to donate US$2 million to establish a Falcon and Bustard Protection Centre in conjunction with the Mongolian Bird-Watch Foundation.
Hawking. While travelling around Bayan-Olgii, you may come across Kazaks living in slightly larger and darker-coloured gers. Some are eagle-hunters who train eagles, falcons and hawks to collect marmots, small foxes and wolves and return them to the ger, where they are used for food by the Kazaks. If you ask nicely, the Kazaks may proudly show you their birds.
In the Kazak tradition known as hawking, which dates back about 2000 years, young birds of prey are caught in nearby valleys, fattened up and washed. The birds' training involves being kept awake for weeks at a time, sitting on a pole called a tugir, and catching small-animal skins called shirga thousands of times. Some of the tools of the trade are a tomaga (hood), bialai (gloves) and khundag (blanket to keep them warm). If well trained, a bird can live and hunt for about 30 years.
When we asked how a vicious hunting bird can be trained to collect, but not eat, small animals, the patriarch, or aksakals, of the clan, smiled without teeth and answered with ambiguity that 'it is just like teaching a child.'
Dinosaurs. In the early 1920s, one of the first discoveries of dinosaur eggs and bones was made by Roy Chapman Andrews in the southern Gobi Desert. This, and subsequent expeditions, proved that protoceratops, tarbosaurus and tyrannosaurus rex dinosaurs roamed the area about 70 million years ago.
With a bit of digging, you may be able to find some dinosaur fossils in the southern Gobi - but please be aware that these fossils are very precious and far more useful to palaeontologists. You will also get into serious trouble if you are caught exporting them.
For centuries, Mongolians have been aware of the need for conservation. The area around Bogdkhan Uul mountain, near Ulaanbaatar, was protected from hunting and logging as early as the 12th century, and was officially designated as a national park over 200 years ago. There are 26 national parks in all, representing an impressive 8% of the total land.
The Ministry of Nature & Environment classifies the national parks into four categories which, in order of importance, are:
Strictly Protected Areas. Very fragile areas of great importance; hunting, logging and development is strictly prohibited.
National Parks. Places of historical and educational interest; fishing and grazing by nomadic people is allowed.
Natural Reserves. Less important regions protecting rare species of flora and fauna, and archaeological sites; some development is allowed within certain guidelines.
Natural & Historical Monuments. Important places of historical and cultural interest; development is allowed within guidelines.
Greenway, Paul, Storey, Robert & Lafitte, Gabriel, Lonely Planet - Mongolia, Second Edition, Lonely Planet Publications, Hawthorn, Australia, 1997, pp. 22-24, 186, 266, 264, 167, 213, 238, 247, 236, 239, 272 & 25, respectively.