A long-eared hedgehog crosses a sand dune in the Gobi Desert
DESERT DWELLER: The long-eared hedgehog lives in the Gobi Desert. © Klein & Hubert/Nature Picture Library

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Wild Empire

Mongolia closes in on its goal to protect nearly one-third of the country and the rare species that call it home.

Fall 2020

Matt Jenkins Freelance Writer


From the grassy seas of the eastern Steppe to the lofty peaks of the Altai Mountains, with forbidding expanses of Gobi Desert and wide belts of boreal forest in between, Mongolia is a land of mind-boggling scale and tremendous ecological importance.

The country is perhaps best-known for its vast grasslands, which sustain more than a million gazelles. But it is also home to a menagerie of species that challenge the imagination: the elusive snow leopard, a Pleistocene-era Muppet-nosed antelope and a trout so big that it preys on beavers.

Dalmatian pelicans
Bird's-Eye View The population of Dalmatian Pelicans in Mongolia is almost extinct, due in part to the traditional use of pelican bills by herding communities. This photograph was taken in Lake Kerkini, Greece. © David Pattyn/Nature Picture Library

Last year, as part of a long-term quest to safeguard Mongolia’s rich natural heritage, the nation’s parliament expanded its system of protected areas by 8.6 million acres—an area larger than Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Glacier, Canyonlands, Olympic, Everglades and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks combined. Then, in May of this year, lawmakers added another 3.2 million acres of nationally protected habitat for some of the country’s most endangered species.

A Corsac fox in Mongolia
Fox Face The Corsac fox ranges across central Asia (including Mongolia). It is smaller and significantly paler than a red fox, but with larger legs and more pronounced ears. © Valeriy Maleev/Nature Picture Library


In conservation, you're always competing against time. Developers can move very fast.

Map of protected lands in Mongolia
Patchwork Protection Similar to U.S. national parks, national protected areas in Mongolia are permanently safeguarded. Local protected-area designations eventually expire, but they prevent mining leases on the land while valid. Today, many of these designations last for an average of 20 years. © Mapping Specialists, Ltd.

Combined, these efforts bring the total amount of land under national-level protection to some 80 million acres and push Mongolia more than two-thirds of the way toward its decades-old goal of putting 30% of the country’s land under national-level protection by 2030.

“Can we afford to do this?”

But the path to this point hasn’t been easy. While much of the country is largely untouched, some areas are intensely exploited. After Mongolians threw off generations of Communist rule in 1990, the nation looked toward its tremendous resources of copper, gold, coal and other minerals to drive development. By the mid-2000s, more than 40% of the country’s territory had been leased for mining and mineral exploration. Many Mongolians took to the streets in protest, and citizens began grappling with hard questions about the future of the environment—and the country itself.

A Saker falcon in flight
Soaring Although populations of Saker falcons are in severe decline across much of Central Asia, the bird is widely distributed in Mongolia. © Staffan Widstrand / Wild Wonders of China /Nature Picture Library
An Asian Great Bustard stands on grass
Heavy Weight Asian Great Bustards (among the heaviest flying birds in the world) migrate more than 2,000 miles between breeding grounds in northern Mongolia and wintering grounds in China. © Ramon Navarro / NiS / Minden Pictures

Galbadrakh Davaa, director of The Nature Conservancy’s Mongolia Program, says balancing development with the protection of key natural areas was a question of competing priorities. “Everybody was worried,” he says. “Can we afford to do that as a developing country?”

In 2008, TNC partnered with the Mongolian government, Mongolian Academy of Sciences, WWF Mongolia and UNDP Mongolia to help the country find an answer before it was too late.

“In conservation, you’re always competing against time,” Davaa says. “Developers can move very fast. We can’t always get ahead of the curve.”

Milestone Land Protection in Mongolia Since 2008, The Nature Conservancy has given scientific support to the national government of Mongolia, which has now put a staggering 37% of its land—some 143.9 million acres—under national and local-level government protection.
Saiga antelope drinking water
Nosedive Mongolia is home to the critically endangered Saiga antelope—populations have plummeted 95% since the early 1990s. This species was photographed in Astrakhan, Southern Russia. © Valeriy Maleev/Nature Picture Library
Przewalski's horse, Hustai National Park, Mongolia
On the Rebound The Przewalski’s horse went extinct in Mongolia in the late 1960s. It has been making a slow if fitful recovery since it was reintroduced in 1992. © Ingo Arndt / Minden Pictures

In 2009, TNC carried out a rapid, year-long ecological assessment of Mongolia’s Eastern Steppe, followed by similar surveys for the Gobi in the south, the Altai Mountains in the west, and the Khuvsgul Lake and Khangai Mountains region in the north. Those assessments helped the government identify critical areas that would collectively protect biodiversity and serve as a blueprint for expanding the country’s network of national and local protected areas.

“Globally, most national protected-area systems only represent a subset of habitat types. High mountain ‘rocks and ice’ are easy to protect because there are few competing economic values,” says TNC conservation scientist Mike Heiner, who helped carry out the ecological assessments in Mongolia.

“Mongolia’s protected-area network represents a full range of habitat types, and that is unique.”

Today, TNC continues to provide scientific support to community-based organizations advocating for protection of ecologically and culturally important areas. That has helped drive a broad effort by local governments to protect an additional 66.4 million acres of land—some of which could be incorporated into the national government’s final-stretch push to conserve 30% of Mongolia’s land by 2030.

Scroll down to see images from the incredibly varied regions of Mongolia.


Lake Hövsgöl and the Khangai Mountains 

A map of Mongolia with the northern part of the country highlighted
- - © Mapping Specialists, Ltd.
A reindeer pulls a sled on Mongolia’s massive Lake Hövsgöl
Ecological Gem Mongolia’s massive Lake Hövsgöl is called “the blue pearl” for its exceptional water clarity. © Celine Jentzsch
Larch forest in Mongolia
Snow Globe In the northern and central parts of Mongolia, a landscape of deep lakes, larch forest (pictured) and the Khangai Mountains spans more than 135,000 square miles. © Celine Jentzsch
Caribou on a frozen lake in Mongolia
Herd Mentality Along the Siberian border, the nomadic Tsaatan people—thought to be one of the earliest domesticators of any animal—rely on reindeer for milk and transport. © Colin Monteath / Hedgehog House / Minden Pictures


The Steppe

- © Mapping Specialists, Ltd.
Przewalski's horse herd grazing in steppe
Where the Wild Things Are The Eastern Steppe provides important habitat for Przewalski’s horses, likely the world’s only remaining true wild horse. © Ingo Arndt/Minden Pictures
A white-naped crane in flight
Grass Assist The Eastern Steppe supports highly nomadic wildlife like the Mongolian gazelle and migratory waterfowl like the white-naped crane (pictured). © Staffan Widstrand/Wild Wonders of China/Nature Picture Library
The steppe in eastern Mongolia at sunrise
Sea of Grass Temperate grasslands are among the most altered and least protected biomes on the planet. Mongolia’s nearly 180,000-square-mile steppe is one of the Earth’s last intact strongholds of this vulnerable habitat. © Ingo Arndt / Minden Pictures


The Gobi Desert

A map of Mongolia with the southern part of the country highlighted
- - © Mapping Specialists, Ltd.
The nose of a Bactrian camel
Desert Survivor The Great Gobi ‘A’ Strictly Protected Area supports several herds of wild Bactrian camels. These frowzy ungulates are some of the world’s last surviving wild camels. © Heidi and Hans-Juergen Koch / Minden Pictures
A Pallas's cat walking in snow in the Gobi Desert, Mongolia
Cool Cat A Pallas's cat walks in snow in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. This elusive feline stalks and ambushes its prey which includes pika and other small rodents. © Valeriy Maleev/Nature Picture Library
A remote camera captures a male Gobi grizzly bear visiting an oasis
Barely Surviving The Gobi bear is listed as critically endangered in the Mongolian Red List of Mammals, with fewer than 40 bears remaining in the wild. © Joe Riis/National Geographic Image Collection
Long-eared jerboa at sunrise in Gobi Desert, Mongolia
Better to Hear You With Long-eared jerboas leverage their large ears and keen hearing by using sound to locate flying insect prey before doing acrobatic jumps to snatch them from the sky. © Klein & Hubert / Nature Picture Library
Sand dunes in the Gobi Desert
High and Dry The high-altitude Gobi Desert, which is a mix of sandy dunes and bare rock, covers the southern third of Mongolia. © Celine Jentzsch


The Altai Mountains

A map of Mongolia with the western region highlighted
- - © Mapping Specialists, Ltd.
Rock carving of wolves hunting ibex
Written in Stone Mongolia’s Altai Mountains support wild mountain goats known as ibex—depicted in this rock carving being hunted by wolves. © Klein and Hubert/Minden Pictures
A snow leopard walks across grass and snow
Wild Cat Collaboration TNC is partnering with the Mongolian Academy of Sciences and Snow Leopard Trust to collar and track snow leopards to reduce conflicts with herders. © Valeriy Maleev/Nature Picture Library
Mongolia’s Altai Mountains (with Kazakh golden eagle hunter in the foreground)
Ancient History Mongolia’s Altai Mountains (with Kazakh golden eagle hunter in the foreground) meet what was once Central Asia’s Silk Road—a historic trade route traversed by caravans laden with silk and spices. © Jami Tarris / Minden Pictures

Matt Jenkins is a freelance writer and former Nature Conservancy magazine editor who has written for The New York Times, Smithsonian and High Country News.