The Serengeti of the east
09 August 2013 | News story
Eastern Daurian Steppe, Mongolia
The Daurian Steppe, stretching across Russia, Mongolia and China, is one of the last great unspoiled grazing ecosystems in the world, comparable to Tanzania’s Serengeti. The jewel of this grassland is Mongolia’s Eastern Steppe, home to over a million Mongolian gazelles – the last large population of migrating ungulates in Asia. It is also a last haven to many other Central Asian species and has been designated as an IUCN-WCPA Critical Global Region and a WWF Global 200 Ecoregion.
The Eastern Steppe grasslands also provide the livelihoods for a third of the country’s population, who still live as livestock herders and depend directly on the Steppe and its wildlife. Deeply implanted in the Mongolian mentality and collective soul, the Daurian steppe not only is the birthplace of Genghis Khan, but has always been central to the country’s culture and history.
There are three Strictly Protected Areas and three Nature Reserves in the Eastern Steppe, managed by two Park Administrations. Many international environmental organizations, including UNDP\GEF, Wildlife Conservation Society and The Nature Conservancy, support management and research.
The contiguous “transboundary” regions of the Daurian Steppe in Russia and China are the best preserved portions of the ecosystem in those two countries. This transboundary grassland habitat is critical for the social, political and ecological connectivity of the steppe ecosystem.
Size and Location
The whole Daurian Steppe covers an area of over 300,000 km2 and stretches across Mongolia and into Russia and China. It contains over 2,000 km of international borders. The Eastern Steppe of Mongolia contains the Strictly Protected Areas Mongol Daguur, Dornod Mongol and Numrug, as well as the Nature Reserves Ugtam, Toson-Khulstai and Yakhi nuur.
Flora and Fauna
Apart from the iconic Mongolian gazelle (Procapra gutturosa), the Eastern Steppe is home to 69 other species of mammals, such as the Grey wolf (Canis lupus) and the Mongolian marmot (Marmota sibirica). The latter is considered a specialty and populations have declined drastically due to hunting pressure. This fate is shared by the magnificent Saker falcons (Falco cherrug), which are caught alive and sold at high prices to be used for hawking.
Seven species of mammals and 16 species of birds are listed in the National red data book as rare and endangered. Over 250 species of migrating birds frequent the three major bird flyways of the Daurian Steppe. In the associated wetlands, White naped crane (Grus vipio), Taimen fish (Huso taimen) and Asiatic frog (Rana chensinensis) can be found.
The dominant flora of the steppe consists of medium to tall grasslands, containing over 600 species of grasses and shrubs. Many of these plants have medicinal properties and more than 60 are listed as endangered, including Largeleaved Gentic (Gentiana macrophylla Pall), Daurian sweetvetch (Hedysarum dahurica Turcz), Oxymatrine Matrine (Sophora flavescens), Common valeriana (Valeriana officinalis L), Needlegrass (Stipa grandis) and East Asian goldenrod (Solidago dahurica).
Historically, human populations on the steppe—consisting mostly of traditional nomadic herders—were sparsely distributed, and had minimal impact on the ecosystem. Political change and the resulting lack of economic stability in the early 1990s disrupted patterns of sustainable use and caused more people to rely on wildlife hunting for subsistence and income, reducing key wildlife populations by 50-90% over the last two decades. Simultaneously, the densities of livestock on the steppe increased at unprecedented rates, resulting in significant occurances of overgrazing. Currently, both stocking rates and poaching rates are less pressing, but these threats still remain significant.
The extraction of oil, coal, gas, and minerals is increasing, and the construction of associated roads and railways threaten to fragment the essential large-scale movements of the grass-dependent nomadic wildlife, such as the Mongolian gazelle. Fortunately, the government of Mongolia is making efforts to alleviate the harmful impacts of these new large-scale infrastructure developments by looking to lessons learned in other countries, for example in the development of “wildlife-friendly” underpasses.
An existing railroad running through Mongolia and connecting Russia and China bisects the range of the Mongolian gazelle. An expansion of the railroad system in Mongolia is planned and will lead to further fragmentation of Mongolian gazelle habitat if not designed to mitigate the impacts on this migratory species.
Climate change is a significant current and future threat to the Daurian Steppe. The Mongolian Hydrological Institute has reported a 60% decrease in surface water in eastern Mongolia over the past 15 years, and most climate models predict that aridity will continue to increase across eastern Mongolia.