A Steppe Forward for Budding Conservationists

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Few words conjure up an image of remote wilderness quite like the word ‘Mongolia’, and for good reason. As the country with the lowest population density in the world (4.58 people per square mile), Mongolia has a very small human footprint, and it’s vast rolling steppes, montane deserts, and taiga forests are practically untouched.

A Ger on teh Mongolia Steppe
A ger from the Summer Field Course 2014

Sadly, that may not hold true for much longer, as a growing mining industry, poaching, and deforestation are beginning to seriously threaten these unspoilt habits.

In order to protect its unique ecosystems, Mongolia will need a cohort of highly trained and dedicated conservation professionals, and this is one area where ZSL makes a contribution to conservation in Mongolia.

Every year ZSL and the Steppe Forward Programme run a Summer Field Course in the Mongolian steppe, for the benefit of students from the National University of Mongolia, as well as undergraduate students from international Universities.

Photos from the 2014 Summer Field Course
The 2014 Summer Field Course

This course equips the students with the skills and experience they need to embark on careers as ecologists and conservationists. In this week’s blog we will hear from one of our international students from last year’s course, and next week we will hear from Munkhjargal Myagmar, a Mongolian Student from our very first course in 2009.


Helen Spence-Jones from the 2014 Summer Field Course

Headshot of Helen Spence-Jones

Tell us a little about yourself

Hi, I’m Helen. I’m from Cambridge, which also happens to be where I studied at university. When I did the field course I had just graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Natural Sciences with  Zoology.

Why did you apply for the ZSL Mongolia Summer Field Course?
I applied for the course after I saw an advertisement in my department, mostly because I wanted to get as much field experience/skills as possible (didn’t really get a lot in my degree). And also  because Mongolia looked awesome.


What was the Field Course like?

Loved it! Loved pretty much all of it. Best bits are hard to choose but the days trekking around placing camera traps were great (climbing rock stacks, sunsets, red deer, wild horses…!). And  learning Mongolian while playing volleyball. And living in gers. And seeing the lynx. Even getting up  at dawn was worth it for the view!

What have you been up to since the course?

At the moment I’m working as a volunteer research assistant with the Kalahari Meerkat Project in South Africa. It’s a long-term study (been going for 22 years now, I think) looking at the evolutionary ecology and behaviour associated with cooperative breeding. Mostly that involves living at the field site, and tracking, weighing, habituating and collecting behavioural data on our study groups of meerkats. Next year I’m planning to get paid to do it, since they’ve offered me a job as a research assistant for Cambridge University (in charge of sample collection and storage, and preliminary data analysis). And here is a picture of me being a serious scientist:

Be sure to come back to hear all about Munkhjargal’s experience on the course too!

For any undergraduates studying a biology related subject that are interested in attending the course, the applications are open: email sfcapplications@zsl.org (or click here for more information on the course including how to apply.

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