The Decades-Long Effort to Protect the World’s Largest Sheep
In the Gobi Desert, where argali roam, a group of Mongolian researchers work to conserve the wild sheep populations
Ganchimeg Wingard cups her mittened hands around the radio receiver to block the cold September wind. When she speaks into it, her voice is slow, soft, deliberate.
“They found a herd… coming in on the north side… two kilometers away… get in position… over.”
Crouched between rocks and shrubs, we hear the horsemen’s yips and whistles before the herd comes into sight. Within seconds, twelve wild argali sheep gallop in our direction, kicking up a cloud of desert dust in their wake. Expertly leaping over ditches and scaling rocky outcrops, the argali race forward as the horsemen drive them toward the nets.
The horsemen had been riding for hours, surveying the park to find the argali. After slowly herding them in the direction of the capture nets, a technique known as “drive netting,” they were now pushing the animals the last 200 yards. If netted, the researchers would have about 10 to 15 minutes to do a complete workup on each animal—take measurements, attach satellite radio collars, and assess the argali’s health—before releasing it. Any longer and the animal could overheat.
Two dozen scientists, students, veterinarians and volunteers wait silently, hidden behind bushes, shrubs and rocks that run alongside the 90-yard stretch of collapsible netting. The team has only three satellite radio collars left. A successful capture would mean an end to the field season.
With seconds to go, the lead ewe veers away from the trap. The rest of the herd follows suit, and all twelve argali skirt the capture nets by mere meters.
“We lost them. We lost them,” says Wingard, the Mongolia Program Director at the Denver Zoological Foundation.
One by one, the researchers emerged from their hiding places. In the distance, dust hovers over the defeated horsemen. Their red and blue deel, traditional Mongolian clothing worn by nomadic herders since the days of Genghis Khan, stand out as pinpricks of color on the otherwise dry and barren landscape.
At the northern edge of the Gobi Desert, rolling plains and tall grasslands give way to rugged, rocky terrain where steppe and desert ecosystems collide. The weather in this nexus region is fierce, as mild, sunny mornings can transition to whipping wind and snowstorms in a matter of hours.
Despite its forbidding climate, Mongolia's Ikh Nart Nature Reserve is home to a diverse array of wildlife, including wolves, saker falcons, Siberian ibex goats, cinereous vultures, vipers and argali—the largest wild sheep in the world.
Argali can weigh up to 400 pounds, which makes them roughly twice the size of North American bighorn sheep. With a light brown coat, the animals are known for their impressive, spiraling horns—an argali ram’s corkscrew horns can grow up to six feet long.
For more than 20 years, Wingard and her team have been helping to protect this iconic species by working in partnership with local herders and their families in Ikh Nart. She now leads the longest-running study of argali anywhere in the world.
“Argali are such an important species for Mongolia,” Wingard says. “They are a source of pride for local people. They want to keep them here for their children’s children.”
Argali not only serve as the symbol of Ikh Nart—they’re the reason for the park’s existence. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, Mongolia became a democratic state. In March 1994, American ecologist Richard Reading traveled to Mongolia as part of a United Nations-led effort to assist the Mongolian government with the transition from a communist-style command economy to a free-market economy.
It was during this visit that Reading met Amgalanbaatar (“Amga”) Sukh, one of Mongolia’s foremost argali experts. Amga was looking for support to set up a long-term, rigorous study of argali. At the time, the population of this species in Mongolia was plummeting. Between 1985 and 1994, the numbers had fallen by more than 65 percent from an estimated 60,000 individuals to just 20,000.
But studying argali is inherently difficult. The animals live among wild, remote desert mountains that are often difficult to access. An even bigger challenge is that argali are terrified of humans, and for good reason. While argali hunting was officially banned in 1953 (although a small number of trophy hunting licenses continue to be issued), poaching has continued unabated. As a result, the animals scatter at high speed when they detect humans, even if separated by miles of rugged terrain.
In 1999, Amga and Reading identified the area now known as Ikh Nart Nature Reserve as the ideal location for their research given the high number of argali that inhabit the region. Ikh Nart, which is located nearly 200 miles southeast of Mongolia’s capital city Ulaanbaatar and comprises 160,000 acres, remains one of the last remaining argali strongholds in the world.
But how to study a species that is so skittish even observing them from a distance is a challenge?
“They were so darn shy,” Reading says. “We had to stop the poaching. Then we had to get them used to seeing people. Only then could we collect the observational data we needed.”
The team, which Wingard joined after meeting Reading while working at the Ministry of Nature and Environment, began collaborating with law enforcement and local community members to find and arrest poachers who were illegally hunting argali. “It was mostly people from outside the area,” Reading says. “We would find poached animals and we’d arrest poachers on a regular basis.”
As a result of their efforts, poaching gradually began to decline in Ikh Nart, and after years of careful management, it has been virtually eliminated. “Word gets out in a place like Mongolia that if you go to Ikh Nart, you’re going to get arrested,” Reading says.
By 2001, the argali population in Mongolia had declined even further. Fewer than 15,000 animals remained in the country. Despite the success in reducing poaching at Ikh Nart, illegal hunting persisted in western Mongolia. And argali faced a new threat: domestic livestock.
“We have between 30,000 and 40,000 livestock here at Ikh Nart, and maybe 700 to 800 argali sheep,” Wingard says. “We think there is a huge overlap in diet, where these animals are potentially competing for forage.”
For more than half a century, under Soviet influence and communist control, livestock numbers in Mongolia were tightly regulated. But in 1990, as the country transitioned to a free-market democracy, herders were suddenly free to own as many animals as they wanted. And with increasing international demand for cashmere (90 percent of the world’s cashmere comes from Mongolia and China), the numbers of domestic animals, especially cashmere goats, skyrocketed. Today, livestock in Mongolia outnumber people 22 to 1.
To conserve argali and protect their habitat, the researchers need to understand where the animals graze and the extent of their home range. But to obtain these data, scientists need to safely capture argali so they can attach satellite radio collars. These collars allow the researchers to digitally map the animal’s movements, identifying possible areas of overlap with livestock herds.
In the early 2000s, the team began the drive netting capture process, which continues today. The method relies almost entirely on the skill and knowledge of local herders.
Working with the herders is critical to the success of the research, Amga says. “Local herders know their animals and their landscape better than anyone. They know where to find the argali, their winter habitat, their birthing areas and their main territory.” They also handle the wildlife with the utmost care, respect and love, he says.
Supporting the research and protecting wildlife in Ikh Nart not only provides a modest amount of income for the herders, it’s also considered an honor. “They think of themselves as volunteer rangers,” Wingard says.
The data collected as part of this study have helped to establish a “core zone” of critical habitat for argali, which is kept relatively free of livestock thanks to the voluntary efforts and support of local herders. According to Reading, the core zone has already had a positive impact on lamb survival and argali population growth.
By all definitions, Ikh Nart’s community-based conservation efforts have been a success. Argali populations have more than doubled in the park since the launch of the project, despite declines elsewhere in Mongolia and across central Asia. And the impact stems well beyond argali. Since the launch of the project, researchers have studied Siberian ibex goats, goitered gazelle, cinereous vultures and many other species that inhabit Ikh Nart.
One afternoon, as the research team took a short break between wildlife surveys, I asked one of the herders—a young man in his early 20s—why he wanted to work on this project. He said he wanted to continue the legacy of his father, who had worked with the research team for 16 years. “My purpose is to protect nature and conserve wildlife for future generations.”
An entire ecosystem now has a robust, local conservation initiative inspired by the largest sheep in the world.