Day 4: Beyond the Flaming Cliffs


On the road early today, heading deeper south to meet with our first project families. The driving conditions are becoming familiar, a mix of washboard tracks and easy rolling hills. Nothing difficult, but not always a “comfortable” ride. The landscapes, however, more than make up for the rough roads. Vast expanses roll by slowly transitioning from one terrain type to the next and then a sudden elevation change as we reach the “Zuun Saikhanii Nuruu” or “Eastern Beautiful” mountains. We are making a stop here to visit Yolin Am, a deep and narrow gorge in the Gurvan Saikhan National Park. The “u” shaped valley is named for the “Lammergeier,” a type of vulture, known as “yol” in Mongolian. The valley was first protected in 1965, and the area under conservation was further extended in 1993. Rich in wildlife Yolin Am is also known for having a deep ice field that becomes several meters thick by the end of winter. It used to remain frozen year round, but climate change has had its effect here too, and the ice tends to disappear by September now. After a short hike through the narrows, the rock walls open up into a remarkable gorge, a reminder of the intricacy of the terrain we are crossing during our journey.

Back on the road, we still have a few hours drive to reach the summer pasture lands of our MBDP families. The Snow Leopard Trust, a partner of the MBDP in Mongolia, has been working in this area for nearly ten years and has implemented several other programs to try to reduce the conflict between herders and predators. A single snow leopard can kill up to 40% of a herder’s flock over the course of a season, and according to the Snow Leopard Trust, retribution killings are one of the three main threats to snow leopards in Mongolia. The use of livestock protection dogs has been shown to reduce predation on domestic livestock by 80-100%, and the hope is that the MBDP dogs will become a large part of the snow leopard conservation efforts.

Historically, Mongolian herders used Bankhars to protect their flocks from predation. For thousands of years, the large native dogs roamed the steppe with their nomadic masters, so much a part of the landscape that they featured in Chinese Qing Dynasty paintings of Mongolia and the 13th century travelogues of Marco Polo. Considered an “ancient landrace” rather than a “breed,” the Bankhars’ evolution was shaped by the herders’ need for an effective livestock guardian in the harsh environment of the steppe. Large and athletic, Bankhars need comparatively little food for their size. They are instinctively protective and can fend off wolves and snow leopards, while being gentle and good natured around their human companions.

The Bankhar were once a huge source of pride to nomadic families, but over the last 80 years, a confluence of circumstances have combined to make them increasingly rare. The dogs began disappearing from the Mongolian landscape during the soviet period, which lasted from the 1920s to the 1990s. As nomads were forcibly relocated in socialist-style settlements, their dogs were let loose or exterminated. Meanwhile other modern breeds were introduced and interbred with the native dogs. To make matters worse, Bankhar pelts were used for fashionable Russian coats, further diminishing the population. Today there are only a few pockets of pure Bankhar dogs left.

Finding the dogs for the breeding project was an initial challenge for the MBDP, and in 2011 project founder Bruce Elfström traveled to some of the more remote areas of the country in search of families still using the original Bankhar dogs. With the help of elder Mongolians, who remembered the dogs from the past, the Bankhars were identified, and then DNA-tested to confirm their pedigree. In addition to being real Bankhar breed, the dogs chosen for the program needed to have a mix of behavioral traits: the dogs had to be calm enough to be around humans but with a level of aggression sufficient to make them protective against predators.

The Bankhars are most often black and mahogany with mahogany “eye spots” over the eyes, though they can also be tan, brown, or black and white. Herders tend to prefer the dogs with “eye spots” which they call “four-eyed dogs.” They believe the “eye spots” give the animal some extra sensory perception that helps it see wolves and even into the spirit world. They often feel that dogs who are not the most common black and rust/tan coloring are not good protectors. The problem with tan or reddish dogs, according to the herders, is that the sheep confuse the tan dogs with wolves because of their coloring. However, MBDP researchers have found that Bankhar of other colors seem to work just as well as protectors. Still, the herders often have a strong opinion on what color they want their dog to be.

[Photos courtesy Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project/OEX]

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