Wolves and Wild Horses: the ZSL Mongolia Summer Field Course

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Wolves and Wild Horses: the ZSL Mongolia Summer Field Course

The ZSL Steppe Forward Mongolia Summer Field Course 2015 - where better to learn field survey techniques than on the rolling Mongolian Steppe?

Every year ZSL Mongolia holds a summer field course on the beautiful Mongolian steppe. The course, for international and Mongolian undergraduates, aims to build conservation capacity both here and abroad.

For the past few years the course has been held in the spectacular National Park of Hustai, or Khustain Nuuru - and this was our destination once again in August.

View of Hustai National Park Hills

If the views alone weren’t a good enough reason to hold the field course here, it is also home to the largest population of the only truly wild horse left in the world, Przewalski’s horse, known in Mongolia as Tahki, meaning spirit (it is easy to see why, when you see them racing gracefully along the hills of Hustai!)

Przewalski's Horses in Hustai on the ZSL Summer Field Course

This year’s course kept our students very busy! The first thing they had to do was set up the camp site in Hustai, which involved all working together to erect the gers, traditional Mongolian felt tents, where they would sleeping, eating, and learning for the next 12 days.

Ger Tents in Hustai National ParkZSL Mongolia Summer Field Course 2015 Camp Site

The course was jam-packed with lectures and practical sessions covering camera trapping, small mammal trapping, bird mist netting and forestry. Before the course even started the students were greeted by interesting wildlife all around them. Vultures, steppe eagles and black kites circled overhead, and not-so-small creepy crawlies, like this one pictured below, littered the camp.

Deracantha mongolica

This very threatening-looking insect is a kind of shieldback katydid. Locals say that drinking the juices inside it is good for curing allergies…not something we tried!

As well as the lectures we also got the students busy with practical fieldwork – the first of which was setting up camera traps. Each station was 1km from the next, so with 5 cameras to set up for each team it was tough going over the very steep terrain!

Students on a hilltop whilst out camera trapping on the ZSL Summer Field Course 2015

A student sets up a camera trap in the field on the ZSL Mongolia Summer Field course 2015

But the results were well worth it; there are always fun surprises in the camera trapping, and this year was no exception. A suspicious guano (poo) covered rock led the students to believe a large bird might be living there, so we decided to set up a camera trap and see who the owner might be.

Sure enough the owners returned home soon after and we were lucky enough to get some fantastic footage of a vulture family! 

The other camera traps caught plenty of other wildlife too: herds of majestic red deer, Roe Deer, Siberian marmots, and a wolf pack.

The students found it amazing to think of the wolf in this picture following a herd of deer, right where they were standing just a few hours before!

Wolves caught on a camera trap on the ZSL Summer Field Course 2015Red deer caught on a camera trap on the ZSL Summer Field Course 2015

Next, we were all up bright and early at 6am to check small mammal traps. Voles and field mice were in abundance this year, and each of our students got hands on training in how to measure and weigh something very small, and with a life and attitude all of its own!

Students weighing a vole on the ZSL Summer Field Course 2015Students shown how to handle a vole on the ZSL Summer Field Course 2015

Students measuring a vole on the ZSL Summer Field Course 2015

Then it was up even earlier (pre- dawn!) to try and catch birds in the mist nets. First catch of the day was a Northern wheatear.

Prof Gombo with a bird on the ZSL Summer Field Course 2015Student handling a bird on ZSL summer Field Course

It was soon followed by a second Northern wheatear, a yellow wagtail, and 5 red-billed choughs. The birds were taken back to camp for weighing, measuring, ringing and DNA sampling before being released.

In between all the fieldwork we kept the students very busy with lectures on conservation and population dynamics! These all took place in the surprisingly cosy lecture ger.

Lectures taking place in a ger in the ZSL Summer Field Course 2015

Once all the lectures were over, the field work finished, and the data analysed, the course was drawing to a close, but first the students got a chance to talk about what they learned, and what their surveys found.

The students gave presentations to the Hustai National Park managers, as well as Catherine Arnold, the British Ambassador to Mongolia, who awarded them their well-earned certificates.

Students give presentations on the ZSL Summer Field Course 2015Catherine Ward presents certificates to the students on the ZSL Summer Field Course 2015

After the certificates were given out it was time to head back to the capital, Ulaanbaatar, for some much needed hot showers!

Students on the ZSL Mongolia Summer Field Course look out at the viewZSL van driving home from the ZSL Mongolia Summer Field Course 2015

If this blog has got you interested, keep a look out on our website - applications for next year open in early 2016!

Click here to learn more about the field course and ZSL’s work in Mongolia, or click here to hear from some of our past students.

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