River Wolf Recognized: Scientists Declare Mongolian Taimen a Vulnerable Species

Rare Conservation Fellow Gankhuyag “Gaana” Balbar shows off his catch for the camera.

Rare Conservation Fellow Gankhuyag “Gaana” Balbar shows off his catch for the camera before releasing it back to the river.

In December 2011, Rare Conservation Fellow Gankhuyag “Gaana” Balbar left the Onon River banks in northern Mongolia for Auckland, New Zealand, to promote his work on a huge but vanishing species. Though the first International Taimen Symposium received little public attention, it catalyzed a reversal of fate for the world’s largest salmon. In Auckland, Balbar presented the Pride campaign he ran in partnership with Rare from 2009 to 2010. The campaign aimed to protect the Hucho taimen (or Mongolian taimen) by engaging local fishers in an innovative marketing campaign and catch-and-release program. “When I showed the results of the campaign it made big attention [sic],” says Balbar. “We also provided biological information to the IUCN [International Union for Conservation of Nature] team.”

In October, an international team of scientists listed the Mongolian taimen as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Inclusion on a list of endangered species may seem like a fatalistic conservation goal, but in this case it is a success story. Balbar and his colleagues at World Wildlife Fund inspired people all over Mongolia, Asia and the world to fight for the taimen. The IUCN listing validates serious concern for the species and warrants that it needs protection.

Five species of taimen exist in Asia. In fact, modern-day salmon and trout evolved from the taimen. “The species’ natural range is vast, amounting to nearly one-eighth of the land area on Earth,” says Pete Rand, senior conservation biologist with the Wild Salmon Center. Despite the taimen’s expansive range, habitat loss and overfishing have decimated this top predator of Asia’s and Europe’s river systems. Also known as “river wolves” because of their voracious appetites, their length can exceed two meters (six and a half feet). Their impressive growth is fueled by a varied diet with everything from ducks to salmon to bats and other small mammals.

“Because of Rare, I communicate with my audiences with inspiration and encourage the desired behavior.”

“One of the most important conservation measures that we identified in our assessment of the taimen is educating recreational anglers on responsible catch-and-release practices,” says Rand. “He [Balbar] is on the front lines of this work, and his dedication is making the real difference.”

In the Onon River community — fabled birthplace of Genghis Khan — locals now call Balbar “Taimen Gaana.” He successfully changed attitudes and behaviors of fishers through a simple concept: “Take a picture. It lasts longer.” Balbar creatively marketed the increased value of leaving fish in the river. At the end of his campaign, Balbar saw a statistically significant 40-percentage-point increase in fishers’ understanding of fishing laws, and 250 taimen were released with pictures to prove it. Billboards of proud fishers with their soon-to-be-liberated trophies adorn the community and encourage habitat, as well as species, protection. “Because of Rare, I communicate with my audiences with inspiration and encourage the desired behavior,” says Balbar.

To maintain momentum, Balbar and his colleagues plan to expand the marketing campaign throughout Mongolia.

Local women in Mongolia learn about taimen conservation.

Local women in Mongolia learn about taimen conservation.