This summer Rare Pride Program Manager Brooke Sadowsky traveled to a World Wildlife Fund sponsored Pride campaign site in Mongolia. Read her blog and meet some of the local leaders and stakeholders involved in a campaign to save the giant taimen fish as they work to solve some of Mongolia’s greatest conservation challenges from the ground up!
Sain Banuu!!! (Traditional Mongolian greeting). My name is Brooke Sadowsky and I’m a Pride Program Manager for Rare’s English training region. I’m managing two new Pride campaigns based in Mongolia and recently returned from my first site visit to the region. Mongolia is a unique place and the campaigns I had a chance to experience inspired me to write down the highlights so I could share them with you!
Mongolia is a country sandwiched between Russia and China, two huge empires. Not many people know that it is an independent country and it is often confused with Inner Mongolia, which is based in China. But thanks to Chinggis Khan (it’s actually not pronounced Genghis there), Mongolia was united as a nation hundreds of years ago. Our Western perception is that Chinggis was a brutal and merciless warrior; but Mongolian reality is that he was a great leader that wanted to stop civil fighting and become one, unified nation. He is REVERED in Mongolia.
Mongolia has a national population of 2.7 Million people. 1 Million of them live in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, while the rest are scattered across this large country. As you head into the countryside, it becomes less and less populated. There are small town centers where populations will gather (around 1,000 – 2,000 people) with many families living in gers stretching out into the deep countryside, miles apart from one another.
It is a country with its own unique and special heritage, yet has often been overshadowed by it’s neighbors. In fact, Soviet communist rule just ended in 1990. 1990! And thrust this nation into its current state of transition, trying to rebuild itself after so many years of communist rule.
The specific site of the Pride campaign I visited is located along the Onon River, which is one of 4 Mongolian rivers supported by a longer river, the Amur-Heilong River, that flows through Mongolia, Russia, and China. The Amur-Heilong is known as the 9th longest river in the world, and the longest Salmon river in Asia.
We are working with six districts, called soums, that are located along the Onon River – each soum occupied by roughly 1,500 – 2,000 citizens. Each soum has a local government with environmental inspectors, mayors, governors, and parliament speakers. Each of these six soums are already committed to protecting the natural land and water surrounding their sites, and are great allies for our Pride campaign.
The Onon River is also home to one of the world’s largest Salmon relative, the taimen (Hucho taimen). Taimen populations used to stretch all the way from Eastern Europe to Japan, but is now only found in Northern Mongolia mostly due to over-fishing in Russia and China. This is a trend we would like to stop within the Onon, which is considered to be one of the last remaining strongholds for this species. But I will tell you more about the species in a second, first let me tell you what else makes the Onon River special.
Yes, back to Chinggis Khan! This statue and corresponding totem are located in Dadal, one of the six soums we are working in, which is considered to be the birthplace of Chinggis Khan. People come all over the world to see this site, simply because it’s where Chinggis came from and believed to be where he brainstormed his most complex strategies to unite the country.
When Rare talks about using Pride to motivate communities to act in more environmentally-friendly ways, we dream of working at sites like this. Within these soums exist a traditional respect, pride, and wonderment about Chinggis and his legacy. Our goal is to tap into these deeply rooted, and positive, feelings to inspire the community to protect the land where Chinggis once lived. Powerful stuff.
Here is what the taimen looks like. Not exactly the warm, fuzzy mascot species you may be used to seeing from Pride campaigns – but it is a local treasure along the Onon River and in great need of protection.
Taimen are the top predator in this fresh water ecosystem – they’ve been known to prey on anything from other fish (including other taimen) to small ducks and rodents that find their way into the water. And being top predator also means they are an important indicator of a healthy water ecosystem – an increase or decrease in their numbers can throw off the entire balance of species. Today, the stocks of all Hucho species are drastically decreasing around the world due to water pollution, intensive poaching/hunting and over-fishing.
Taimen typically stay in one place and only migrate during specific seasons which makes them easy prey for fishermen to locate and harvest. I should mention here that Taimen are not being fished for subsistence – fish is not a natural part of a Mongolian diet – rather they are fished as trophy prizes (I saw several Taimen heads hanging inside Mongolian homes) or in exchange for money by a taimen trader bringing the rare delicacy to the capital city (which is a very new trend).
Our goal for this campaign is to increase the Taimen population in Mongolia’s Onon River by 10-20% by 2010.
Our partner in this project is World Wildlife Fund (WWF) – Mongolia. Here is the team that is based in Dadal and is focused on creating community-based natural resource management and small business enteprises along the Onon River soums. Our Pride campaign is married to these initiatives as the community engagement arm.
Please allow me to introduce the team (from left to right): Ganaa (Pride campaign manager), Davaa, Chin-bat, me, Nadaa, and BB (Gaana’s supervisor). Everyone on this team grew up in one of the six local Onon communities. This was done strategically to enhance the team’s understanding of the site, the community and their behaviors. It also lends itself to sustainability as each individual is deeply invested in the work they’re doing and the community they’re working with.
The Pride campaign is building tremendous capacity within this team. Gaana engages each member of his team for his campaign milestones. Chin-bat, who is the other community liaison on the team, worked side-by-side with Gaana during his stakeholder meetings. More recently, the entire team provided feedback and input into the Quantitative survey of the community, and it’s being implemented in conjunction with the team’s natural-resource management workshops. I am greatly inspired by their teamwork and look forward to seeing everyone working together on the campaign materials.
Gankhuyag “Gaana” Balbar is the Pride campaign manager for the Onon River site. Gaana, as an individual, continues to amaze and inspire me every day. Each day on our trip, we learned something new about Gaana; something that only made our respect for him triple. We knew when he first joined the cohort that he was once the Governor of the Dadal soum – the youngest governor ever to be elected at the age of 25. What we didn’t know was that as the governor, Gaana was directly responsible for creating the Onon-Balj National Park that covers nearly 416,000 hectares of forest, grassland, and river areas. And once the park was created, Gaana became the National Park Director and ran its administration for 4 years. He also spent a few years working in the Eastern steppe grasslands, the location of our other Mongolian Pride campaign, monitoring gazelle populations with Kirk Olson (WCS gazelle specialist) and creating a local organization called the Eastern Mongolia Community Conservation Association. This organization works closely with the community to help manage their livestock populations while training them to protect their natural resources.
Gaana knew everyone in the communities we visited, from the unemployed fisherman to the parliament speaker and police chief. Citizens from all around would come out of the buildings, or stop their tasks, to shake Gaana’s hand and catch up. As his supervisor said to us, “even the dogs bark when they hear Gaana’s name.” We saw that happen too.
Community members are extremely warm and friendly. Here some community members are gathered to watch the end of a local horse race, which we found out about as a man on a horse ran through the town center yelling “they’re coming back!” (in Mongolian, of course.) Mixed in this group are school teachers, children, government officials, park rangers, fishermen, herders, and more – they do not separate from one another – they are a united community.
They also have great understanding and compassion for their land and animals. They grew up here, they’ve seen the land change, and they are concerned. But what they don’t have are solutions.
WWF-Mongolia’s Dadal office has already done a lot of work with this community to understand what is working and where solutions are needed. That is why they are placing special emphasis on creating community managed areas so they can transfer land ownership to the community. And why training in natural resource management is a key factor, so once the community has ownership over the land, they can be empowered make informed decisions about how to use those resources. And the pressing need for more income among a very poor community that is dedicated to working hard, is why WWF is piloting small business enterprises among these sites. The community understanding, engagement, and motivation provided by Gaana’s Pride campaign will help these initiatives take hold and mobilize the community to protect the Onon ecosystem.
Specifically, we need to get local fishermen like Bayarjargal (above) to stop catching and keeping Taimen. It’s permissible to catch and release Taimen; in fact, fly-fishing is a huge sport in Dadal and brings dozens of very wealthy international tourists to the site every year. But it is not legal to remove taimen from the water completely, and each soum government has agreed to support and enforce this law. But the behavior has not yet changed at the local level.
So, why would Bayarjargal, a local school librarian, catch and keep a taimen when he is already receiving a steady salary? Maybe he doesn’t know that he shouldn’t keep it? Maybe it’s so much fun catching the fighting predator fish that it’s hard to stop? Maybe he doesn’t know the difference between a taimen and a carp? Maybe the $20 paid by a taimen trader is just too tempting to pass up? Maybe the taimen trader is his cousin and he can’t say no to him? Maybe all his friends do it, so he goes along with them? The reality is that all these reasons contribute to his behavior – it’s not linear and it’s not simple – like all human behaviors (don’t most Americans gamble for these exact same reasons?)
We believe that that Pride campaign, combined with WWF’s great efforts on community-based natural resource management and small business development, will be the necessary steps to ensure long-term shifts in awareness, attitudes, and behaviors towards saving the taimen and its surrounding resources.