Dogs are Coming to the Rescue of the Mongolian Steppes

Dernière mise à jour : 17 nov. 2019

This article is a translated version of the original article we wrote in French and that was published in Le Devoir, a newspaper based in Montreal, Canada. The original version can be found here.

Mongolia is one of the last countries on Earth where nomadic people herd their flocks. Time is running out for the Mongolian herders however, as the steppes they travel are turning to dust. Luckily, a hero from the past might slow the desert's progress: the Bankhar dog, who promises not only to save an ecosystem, but also a thousand year old lifestyle.

This big shepherd dog, that can resist Mongolia's extreme weather, does much more than just protecting sheep: by reducing human and predator conflict, it might help to restore the steppes' fragile ecosystem, which has been disturbed by human intervention and climate change.

An endless war is taking place on multiple fronts every day in Mongolia. Exhausted by the loss of their flock and the sleepless nights, herders take advantage of the day to kill wolves and burn their dens. At night, the packs reply and the cycle continues. Seated in his ger, the habitation we call yurt in the Western world, a herder named Ganbold recalls his horrible nights which now seem like a distant nightmare.

Ganbold was sleeping under the stars, surrounded by his sheep and the green hills of Arkhangai province, in the center of Mongolia. His sleep light and his hand on his gun, he was waiting for the enemy he hoped never to see again.

His presence in the middle of the herd didn't prove to be enough. In the dead of night, a pack of wolves attacked his animals, wrecking his flock and reducing once more the small revenue he hoped to get out of his livestock. Since he received a Bankhar puppy, the herder can sleep in his own bed for the first time in years.

«Families who received our dogs have seen an 85% to 100% reduction of animal losses at the hands of Mongolia's great predators, like the wolves and the snow leopards», proudly emphasizes Bruce Elfström, the founder of the Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project.

The Myth, the Legend

Bruce Elfström set foot in Mongolia for the first time more than 15 years ago. The trained biologist was working on the set of an IMAX movie when he himself witnessed the tragedy of wolves' attacks.

«The community I was staying in lost 17 young horses in one night. I knew Mongolia had sheperd's dogs, but nobody seemed to have them anymore. I thought it was unthinkable that people kept on killing wolves when a perfect solution seemed to already exist», he recalls.

The Bankhar dog is endemic to Mongolia and has been around for thousands of years. During his research, Bruce Elfström discovered that the period during which Mongolia was a Soviet puppet-state, between 1924 and 1990, caused a immense loss of knowledge.

«The Soviets moved populations and forced nomadic herders to settle and become farmers or to live in cities. Their dogs couldn't live in such small spaces and became agressive. The Russian soldiers then shot almost all of them», relates the scientist.

An encounter with an amateur Bankhar dog breeder who wished to preserve this legacy created a spark that led Bruce Elfström to build breeding facilities in 2013, where dozens of dogs happily bark in the heart of the steppes.

Reducing the Flock's Size

Walking between those isolated fences is Batbaataar Tumurbaatar, the field scientist of the Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project. He is the one who criss-crosses the unmarked roads of the distant provinces of Mongolian, meeting with herders who could benefit from the help of a Bankhar.

Near the 4x4 that will let them meet those nomadic families is his colleague Soyolbold Sergelen. The both of them are getting ready for the delicate dealings that will necessarily result from their visit in Arkhangai.

«Right now, we are facing a problem: the steppes are desertifying. One of the main reasons is the herders' flocks are too big. It's normal: when you are scared that wolves will eat half of your livestock, the best way to manage the risk is to have more animals. We hope that giving them a dog will make them realize they don't need as many animals», Batbaatar explains.

«At the same time, we are living in a globalized capitalist system. The herders need to make a decent living, which leads them to increase the size of their herds. Even if they know it's not sustainable on the long term, who are we to come and tell them to reduce their herd's size and make less money?» Soyolbod Sergelen emphazises.

This is the heart of the problem. Mongolia does not posses a strong national industry that could process the products of herding, like wool and leather. Corruption is also rotting the Mongolian political system, which in turn curbs the instauration of mesures that could reduce the pression on the steppes, like a tax per head who would intice big herders to minimize their livestock number.

«Since many of the most powerful politicians of the country have immense herds, the will to solve the problem is even weaker», says Chantsallkham Jamsranjav, responsible for the Durable Cashmere Project of the Wildlife Conservation Society, another initiative which tries in its way to save the steppes.

Renewing a Tradition

While a national solution to the complex problem of the steppes' desertification is still pending, every Bankhar puppy contributes to preserving the Mongolian nomadism.

Traditionally, the dog occupied a central role in the family. His return also marks the one of spiritual and social practices that have sometimes been forgotten.

«The dog is a very valuable animal. When they receive a dog, herders whisper its name in its ears so the bad spirits will not hear it, explains Bruce Elfström. The dog also makes herders want to go back to their traditional herding mode, turning away from the motorcycle which now dominates the landscape and mounting their horses again, to work side by side with their dog.»

This will to give back a part of their history to Mongols can also be witnessed in the very concrete wish to eventually pass on the entirety of the Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project in local hands.

«All of the conservation projects of the last hundred years have been put up by Westerners who leave after one year. I really support Bruce's vision that herders should eventually raise and breed the dogs themselves and become active leaders in the conservation efforts of their own environment», affirms Soyolbold Sergelen.

Climate Change

It is a wish that will have to come true sooner than later, because climate change is accelerating the steppes' degradation. According to a national report which came out in 2015, 65% of the studied land parcels were not in pristine conditions, and 7% of these degraded parcels were in a state of irreversible damage. This proportion went up to 10% in 2017.

«Some studies show that the average soil temperature increased of 2.1 degrees in Mongolia in 40 years, where the global average is of 1.6 degrees», stresses Chantsallkham Jamsranjav.

Facing unpredictable winters and droughts, which led to the loss of 22% of the country's livestock in the sole winter of 2010, herders don't need to be convinced about the realness of climate change.

«Without nomadism, there is no Mongolia. We have been living like this for thousands of years. I do think we depend on the climate. Our survival depends of our future actions and of the way we will treat nature and the environment», resumes Ganbold, his gaze lost towards the steppes where from now on, three new Bankhar puppies roam free.

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