The climate of the Great Gobi is continental and very dry. The temperature differences both during the day and between the seasons are enormous. The annual mean temperatures are in the subzero range, which is characterized by the altitude above sea level, between 1,100 and 2,900 mamsl. The altitudinal gradient contributes significantly to an ecosystem rich in ecological niches and with large fluctuations.
The Great Gobi B is situated between the Altai Mountains and even drier areas of the Gobi in China. The amount of precipitation is around 150 mm per year, which corresponds to a semi-desert climate. The precipitation sometimes falls as snow, but mainly as rain during summer.
The biosphere is characterized by not only the drought and the large temperature gradient during the day and between the seasons but also by enormous annual differences. Therefore, plants have to cope with water stress and large differences in temperature. A high degree of mobility brings great advantages for animals in order to find suitable habitats depending on the situation, especially during the very low temperatures in winter often combined with plenty of snow.
Such events, called Dzud in the Mongolian language, manifest themselves in large losses of non-mobile populations such as rodents. Mobile species avoid major losses by bypassing these events, which often occur very differently in different regions. However, many species show significant population fluctuations due to this dynamic ecosystem.
Due to the short growing seasons and the scarce water resources, the vegetation shows a low productivity. The area is mostly forest-free, with Euphrates poplar growing in very few places. The vegetation is defined by the annual fluctuations in the distribution of water. Snowy winters or summers with large amounts of rain cause the otherwise barren vegetation to grow enormously. Therefore, the productivity between years fluctuates many times over.
The subterranean water currents become visible through the vegetation. The water flows down in streams from the Altai, seeps into the desert and stretches over many kilometers into the plain. These areas are characterized by a rich flora. The vegetation exhibits the saxaul, a woody plant which can grow into a small tree under favorable conditions. The saxaul populations are often accompanied by tamarisks.
Apart from the tamarisks, the most noticeable accompanying flora is a type of grass growing in high tufts (Achnatherum splendens). Further away from the subterranean water currents, we find feather grass steppes (stipa glareosa) and a vegetation covered by various Artemisia species. These types of grass are the most important forage crops for equines. At higher altitudes the character of the Great Gobi B becomes desert-like with larger, mostly vegetation-free areas.
In addition to the takhi, the khulan is the most striking animal species of the Great Gobi. The Asiatic wild ass is a very mobile species that, depending on the season and rainfall, gathers to form large herds. The Great Gobi B is becoming more and more an important retreat for this species, as the populations are declining drastically due to habitat fragmentation.
Apart from the khulan, goitered gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa) can be seen on the plains quite frequently. They live in small groups and their populations vary greatly locally. Other ungulate species are the Siberian ibex and the argali, although their distribution is limited to the mountainous area. The snow leopard can also be found up there, whereas the lynx and the manul, a small type of cat, inhabit the plains.
The wolf, on the other hand, is present everywhere. The large canine also influences the takhi and khulan populations as its mobility in their areas is enormous. In a year, a young female wolf can roam around an area of 143,000 km2, which is approximately 3.5 times the area of Switzerland.
However, a large number of small mammals (five toed jerboa, three toed jerboa, Tamarisk gerbil) and, in their wake, birds of prey are particularly characterizing for the Gobi. Their densities can vary enormously, especially buzzards and small eagle species can reach high densities after 2-3 favorable years in a row. Black vultures and bearded vultures can also be seen regularly.
Because of the low vegetation productivity, many animals require large areas. In more productive locations, competition between species is significant and can become a problem, especially when livestock use the area as well.
Fauna of the Great Gobi B
The Great Gobi B SPA was designated as a biosphere reserve in 1972 and has been a strictly protected area since 1975. At that time, the main goal of the approximately 9,000 km2 wide Great Gobi B was the protection of the takhi, whose extinction had not yet been confirmed. In 2019, the protected area was expanded to around 18’000 km2 by a resolution of the national parliament (Great Khural). This expansion is also a success of the Takhi Project and the ITG.
The Great Gobi B is one of 20 strictly protected areas (Strictly Protected Area, SPA) in Mongolia. These large-scale areas consist of a core zone (IUCN Cat. 1) and a surrounding zone.
UNESCO Biosphere Reserve
The Great Gobi B is not only a Strictly Protected Area under Mongolian law, but together with the Great Gobi A, it also meets UNESCO’s criteria of a biosphere reserve. This form of a protected area was established to serve the common goals of a biosphere and its people and to achieve a positive development for its inhabitants and nature.
Nomads have been living in the Great Gobi since time immemorial. Their way of life is fundamentally sustainable and it is compatible with the demands of the ecosystem and especially the local animal species. On the one hand, a biosphere reserve takes into account the fact that there are hardly any areas not inhabited by humans nowadays and, on the other hand, the interest of the local population is ultimately decisive for the effective nature conservation.
This is also true for the Great Gobi. The nomadic population has every interest in preserving their habitat and, in particular, in protecting it from the negative influences of mining. This interest was decisive for the expansion of the protected area in 2019. The habitat remains preserved for nature and the nomadic population and the idea of the protected area and its goals is supported by the local population.
A protected area is only as good as its management: In addition to know-how, human and financial resources are particularly crucial.
Rangers play a central role in a protected area. They implement the objectives on site and act as the main contact for the population. In the case of the Great Gobi B, almost all of the rangers come from the region.
In 2020, the number of rangers was increased from 7 to 21, indicating the will of the Mongolian government to implement the goals of the protected area. Besides the well-trained staff, a suitable infrastructure and sufficient resources (e.g. gasoline for the vehicles) are crucial in order to achieve the objectives. For several years now, the ITG has been procuring a significant amount of operating resources and has made a substantial contribution to the provision of a suitable infrastructure, such as the National Park House and vehicles.
While managing a protected area like the Great Gobi B, all activities must be coordinated, which is done effectively by means of a management plan jointly developed by all key players. It allows for a coordinated use of resources, a focus on priorities and an early resolution of contradictions. The current management plan for the Great Gobi B was put into effect in 2019 and it will manage the activities of all actors in a constructive way for the next few years.
Research has been of great importance for the reintroduction project in the Great Gobi since 1997. In accordance with the guidelines of the IUCN Reintroduction Specialist Group accompanying research is pivotal to the knowledge-based management of a project.
Thanks to the work of Chris Walzer and Petra Kaczensky, initially as employees of the Salzburg Zoo and later as employees of the FIWI in Vienna, research did not only contribute to the key knowledge of the project’s management and development, but their finances and staff also provided the fundamental basis of the project for many years.
Today, the ITG runs a research program for further project development under the leadership of Petra Kaczensky. She works as associate professor at the Inland Norway University of Applied Science (INN) and for the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna. She leads the research council of the ITG. Her main focus lays on environmental protection and on the management of protected areas.
In 2017, ITG defined various key research areas, which are constantly being developed and added to. There are currently 11 focal points:
The following four projects are presently being implemented:
The ecosystem of the Great Gobi B is threatened by various influencing factors. The most important are mining, climate change, cultural change and poaching.
Mining: Its negative impact on the Great Gobi B was the main reason for the expansion of the reserve. Mining destroys territories for good and robs the nomadic population of their livelihood.
The division of the habitats by transport infrastructures is decisive for the flexibility and mobility of the animals in the ecosystem. It endangers the large-scale integration between the protected areas, e.g. between the Great Gobi A and B. A few successes have already been achieved by examining today’s landscape permeability when planning traffic routes, which is consistently implemented when constructing railways.
Climate change: While Mongolia as a whole has seen a dramatic loss of water, resulting in the drying up of springs and the destruction of pastures, this development is less clear for the Great Gobi. However, seeing that the area is nearly too dry already, especially for the wild horse, one can easily imagine what a slightly worse drought might result in.
Changes in nomadic culture: The economic importance of the cashmere goats has led to a steadily increase in their proportion in the herds of small cattle compared to the sheep. If the total population remains the same, the risk for the pastures will increase massively, as goats cause much more damage than sheep due to their way of grazing.
Considering the attractiveness of the Great Gobi B for nomads, new families could also settle. Although basic approaches to arable farming in the area were fortunately discontinued after 1990, such ideas have been reappearing recently and are in no way compatible with the sensitive water balance of the Gobi ecosystem.
Poaching: Fortunately, poaching is not a frequent but rather a sporadic phenomenon in the Great Gobi B with only the khulan and the crop gazelle being affected and not the takhi. It appears primarily in connection with illegal private mining activities. The expansion of the protected area and the increasing number of rangers offer a high degree of guarantee that poaching will not become a major negative factor.