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Railway fence hems in Mongolia’s migratory wild asses

Mongolian wild ass are among the most mobile of terrestrial mammals, ranging over thousands of square kilometers each year.  They are photographed grazing alongside a railway fence at Khulan. Photo: Petra Kaczensky/Vetmeduni Vienna

Mongolian wild ass are among the most mobile of terrestrial mammals, ranging over thousands of square kilometers each year. They are photographed grazing alongside a railway fence at Khulan. Photo: Petra Kaczensky/Vetmeduni Vienna

A railway fence now marks the de facto eastern border of the range for the Asiatic wild ass, say conservationists, who warn that migratory habits are under threat from burgeoning human development.

Conservations are warning of the dangers posed by rapid infrastructure growth in Mongolia on the migratory habits of ungulates in the region.

The say rapid changes on the Gobi-Steppe ecosystem are posing serious challenges for the likes of wild asses, which can range over 70,000 square kilometres every year, and Mongolian gazelles.

Mongolian and international conservationists say the steppe is home to a unique range of animal and plant species, and warn that authorities need to reconcile rapid infrastructure development in Mongolia with the needs of migratory species.

Their recommendations are published online in the journal, Conservation Biology.

The Gobi-Steppe ecosystem is world renowned for its migratory mammals, which cover great distances in search of forage.

Scientists at the Research Institute of Wildlife Ecology at the Vienna University of Veterinary Medicine have documented that, in just one year, an individual wild ass can range across 70,000 square kilometres.

“Wild asses and gazelles have to be permanently on the move and travel very long distances to find enough food,” explains Petra Kaczensky, one of the authors from the university, also known as Vetmeduni Vienna.

“Rainfall is highly variable in this region. As a consequence pastures are patchy and unpredictable in space and time.”

Although vast stretches of land remain largely unaltered, migratory species face a number of obstacles that disrupt their journey and affect their ability to survive and reproduce in this highly variable environment.

The main obstacles of the recent past are fences erected along the international borders with Russia and China and the Trans Mongolian Railroad.

The railroad fence now constitutes the de facto eastern border for the Asiatic wild ass, cutting the population off from its former much larger range to the east.

Gazelles have also been largely restricted to either side of the railroad, but when they do attempt to cross they often get entangled or turned away.

On its rapid path of economic development, Mongolia continues to build roads and new railway lines that are expected to threaten the ecological phenomenon of wildlife migration, if not carefully planned.

The conservationists say structural modifications could be made to fences and unnecessary fences removed in areas where there are no livestock. Planned railway lines could be re-routed to avoid sensitive areas.

Another author of the report, Kirk Olson, from Fauna & Flora International, a global conservation group based in Britain, says: “We advocate a development process that minimizes negative effects on the integrity of the ecosystems such as following existing roads between villages to avoid large uninhabited regions while also incorporating the necessary designs so that they do not become new barriers; at the same time known barriers need to be removed.

“Regional planners need to think big – meaning on the scale of the migrations,” adds author Nyamsuren Batsaikhaan, from the National University of Mongolia.

Research into the movement and habitat requirements of the species roaming Mongolia´s Gobi-Steppe ecosystem is ongoing, but needs to continue to identify potential conflicts between development efforts and biodiversity conservation requirements, the researchers say.

Science can and should play a role in planning processes, according to Chris Walzer of the Vetmeduni Vienna, another author of the paper.

“It is also among the responsibilities of a university to provide that link between science and policy-making. Scientists can provide constructive inputs in fields such as wildlife management and conservation.

“I think that if we do not translate our findings into practical advice that non-scientists can use, we have failed in our educational mission.”

In the case of Mongolia, the authors are hopeful that joint efforts will lead to the preservation of the country´s outstanding natural heritage for future generations.

The article, “Conserving the World’s Finest Grassland Amidst Ambitious National Development”, by N. Batsaikhan and others, was recently published in Conservation Biology. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cobi.12297/abstract

 

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