Gazelle Under Threat

As you bounce along in your 4WD, there's a chance that you may catch sight of one of eastern Mongolia’s highlights: herds of up to 10,000 Mongolian gazelle – among the very last of the great migratory herds – darting across the steppe. When pre-eminent biologist George Schaller first visited in 1989, he proclaimed the immense herds to be one of the world’s greatest wildlife spectacles.

Sadly, indiscriminate poaching for subsistence and bush-meat sale has reduced their numbers, so you'll be lucky indeed to catch a glimpse of a great herd; in the past 50 years, their range has shrunk by over 75 per cent. There are an estimated one million Mongolian gazelle left in the wild, and some researchers believe up to 200,000 – about 20 per cent of the entire population – of these creatures are illegally shot every year. Many are killed outside the legal hunting season, when females are lactating and make easier targets. Gazelle leg horsewhips are brazenly sold at markets across the country, including Ulaanbaaatar's Narun Tuul market – please do not purchase these.

Habitat loss to overgrazing, road construction and the erection of barriers further puts their numbers at risk. Mining is another threat: oil exploration in southeast Dornod has brought large-scale infrastructure and thousands of workers into a once uninhabited region, and the oil fields lie perilously close to the border of protected areas.

US-based international conservation NGOs such as the Wildlife Conservation Society (www.nature.org) and The Nature Conservancy (www.wcs.org) now work to protect gazelle habitat on the eastern steppe. The BBC's Planet Earth featured the gazelles and the eastern steppe on their grassland series (go to YouTube and search for 'Mongolian gazelle’).