Mongolia's Perilous Wildlife Trade

Gray wolves and red deer are just two of many progressively disappearing Mongolian wildlife species. Photo: iStockphoto

Mongolia—the world's second largest landlocked country—is a place of great beauty and adventure, though rarely a destination for American tourists. It is also a place of extremes, with landscapes ranging from arid deserts to high mountains, and from rich grasslands to vast forests. The country's climate exceeds 100 degrees in the summer, yet falls to -50 degrees in the winter. Though nearly as large as Alaska, Mongolia is home to fewer than 3 million people, making it one of the least densely populated countries in the world. Tragically, illegal trade has decimated its wildlife heritage, once-teeming with myriad species, including saiga antelope, argali sheep, saker falcons, gray wolves, musk deer and marmots.

Gray wolves and red deer are just two of many progressively disappearing Mongolian wildlife species. Photo: iStockphotoIn "Silent Steppe: The Illegal Wildlife Trade Crisis," a Wildlife Conservation Society report, the causes and consequences of illegal wildlife trade are comprehensively and starkly documented. The numbers of wild species being slaughtered to feed both domestic demand and to satiate China's appetite for wildlife and wildlife products are startling, as are species population declines and the lack of wildlife research or enforcement of the country's wildlife laws.

Life in Mongolia changed practically overnight in 1990, when the Soviet Union—and its economic subsidies—dissolved. Mongolia's northern neighbor had dominated the country's political and economic life for almost 70 years, leaving it adrift with a marginal capacity to function. Its salvation was its native wildlife, which quickly became a new source of currency. The wildlife's value increased as Mongolia's borders, shared with Russia and China, were thrown open to both legal and illegal trade.

Argali sheep, prized by trophy hunters for their massive size, are not receiving adequate protection. Photos: Richard Reading

Shocking Statistics

Mongolia's subspecies of saiga antelope catastrophically declined in only five years, from more than 5,000 to less than 800 animals, to feed China's lucrative traditional medicine market—where saiga horns are believed to have curative powers. Since horns containing blood are most valuable, poachers pursue the animals by car with the intent of striking and forcing them to the ground. An axe is then used to remove the horns from the still-live injured animals, who eventually bleed to death. Though recent population surveys suggest saiga numbers may have increased to 1,500, the species remains in desperate trouble due to poaching and other threats.

Photo: Marek Szczepanek/WikipediaWith population numbers falling from an estimated 130,000 in 1986 to no more than 10,000 in 2004, Mongolia's red deer populations have declined by 92 percent. The deer are killed largely for their antlers, which are exported for use in the Traditional Chinese Medicine trade. Male genital organs, fetuses and female deer tails are also traded. At the height of the antler trade, 57,000 tons of blood antlers and 155,000 tons of shed antlers were being shipped annually to China. Mongolia's musk deer, killed for their valuable scent glands or pods for use in Asia's traditional medicine industry, have experienced a sharp decline from their estimated population of 44,000 in 1975, according to biologists.   With no surveys in the past 20 years, however, the current population size is unknown.

Saiga antelope populations have declined dramatically because their parts are popularly used in traditional Chinese medicine.Photo: Xavier Bayod FarreAs a favorite of wealthy American trophy hunters, argali sheep—the largest wild sheep in the world—have been reduced from an estimated 50,000 animals in 1975 to as few as 13,000 in 2001. Additionally, there is a lack of evidence that Mongolia satisfies any of the criteria established to ensure the sustainability of trophy hunting by the US Fish and Wildlife Service when it listed the argali sheep as threatened, pursuant to the Endangered Species Act. However, permits to allow the import of sport-hunted argali sheep from Mongolia are issued routinely. The requirement that significant sums of money raised from this hunting (which can cost between $40,000 and $70,000) be used for argali conservation has been nearly completely ignored.

Saker falcons and mule deer are also targeted for the wildlife trade. Photo: Peteris ErglisThe marmot is the species perhaps most dramatically impacted by illegal wildlife trade. Extensively trapped and hunted for their fur, Mongolian marmot populations that once numbered more than 40 million fell to 20 million by 1990, and to only 5 million by 2002. Over 3 million Siberian marmots were killed in 2004 for their fur and other parts, estimated to be worth $30 to $40 million, with another 1 million Altai marmots killed the same year. The decline in marmot populations in their range throughout Mongolia is critical and catastrophic.

The demand for wildlife products, mainly from China, feeds the growing poaching and illegal wildlife trade problem in Mongolia. Along with a lack of funds to conduct required wildlife population surveys, deficient wildlife protection and trade laws, woeful inadequacies in its capacity to enforce existing laws, and a lack of scientific justification for hunting quotas and wildlife management programs, Mongolia's once-ecologically diverse landscapes are becoming silent and empty.