Steppe back from the brink: why ZSL is working to end the illegal wildlife trade in Mongolia

by ZSL on

By Monica Wrobel, ZSL Head of Regional Programmes

As the Financial Times' chosen charity partner for this year’s Seasonal Appeal, ZSL's Monica Wrobel explores our work in Mongolia to tackle the illegal wildlife trade.

Talk about the illegal wildlife trade (IWT) and most people think of ivory and rhino horns. These are of course critically important examples, but IWT goes far beyond that. Our best estimate puts its value at $23 billion per year.

ZSL, therefore, works across the world with governments and communities to tackle IWT, including in countries less well-known as trade routes. Mongolia might seem a long way from elephants and rhinos but even here smugglers find routes for those products alongside Mongolia’s own threatened wildlife.

Photo - Two men, each riding a camel across the flat snow covered steppe in Mongolia
The Mongolian Border Force use camels to patrol the inaccessible border with China

Mongolia and China share a 4,630-kilometre border which makes enforcement challenging and presents an opportunity to wildlife traffickers. Global criminal syndicates, who consider poaching low risk and high reward, take advantage of this path to the largest IWT market in the world. Animals killed elsewhere may be trafficked into Mongolia and then onwards to Chinese consumers, where they can be sold for much higher prices. 

Mongolian official records show 8,000 wildlife seizures between 2015 and 2018, ranging from wolf skins to live falcons, and are likely an underestimation of the real size of the trade. Amongst examples of many other endangered species, confiscations include rhino horns and ivory so, although a long way from living elephants and rhinos, a safe Mongolian border is key to their survival. The complex global wildlife trafficking network has also had an impact on Mongolia’s wildlife and its people.

Photo - Metal shelf displaying several specimens of amputated rhino horn and ivory carvings
Rhino horns and ivory seized at the Chinese border by Mongolian Customs General Administration

Life on Mongolia’s vast grassland steppes can be hard – for people and for wildlife. The weather drops to a brutal minus 30oC and healthy grazing pasture is becoming less reliable. Rural Mongolia is home to almost a million herders who live the traditional way as nomadic shepherds. Hunting - for food, for fur and for “medicine” - is part of that historic way of life but as Mongolia has undergone rapid economic change since the mid-1990s, the scale of and motivation for hunting has changed too. The situation created incentives to participate in a growing, international and illegal trade and risked allowing trade routes to take hold.  

Photo - A Mongolian Customs Officer in uniform kneeling on the grass outside with his detector dog
Customs Officer Munkhnasan Yadamsuren won the 2019 ZSL award for intercepting the most illegal wildlife specimens
Driven by profit, professional hunting increased and the number of animals killed far exceeded government quotas put in place to protect wildlife populations. Modern techniques exacerbated the problem too. Wolves, for example, may now be chased to exhaustion by poachers in four-by-fours, allowing them to hunt wildlife on a level not previously possible. 

With wildlife numbers the lowest ever recorded, the Mongolian government closed many of the legal loopholes poachers exploited in 2015. This has raised significant awareness and has reduced hunting, but work is still needed to stop the trade which persists secretly. In markets in Ulaanbaatar today you can find falcon claws, eagle heads, wolf bones and teeth, hidden but available at a price. All are poached unlawfully, with some sold in Mongolia, but much destined for global markets. 

In 2018, therefore, ZSL undertook a major project funded by the UK Government through Defra’s IWT Challenge Fund to secure Mongolia’s borders and communities against wildlife trafficking. With Mongolian partners and the UK Border Force, ZSL trains detector dog units for deployment at border checkpoints; teaches Customs Officers about CITES and wildlife product smuggling enforcement; and works with the Mongolian government to support national and international collaboration in the sharing of information between enforcement agencies. 

ZSL cooperates with communities along the Chinese border too, to support community security against illicit activities and boost awareness and reporting of IWT and associated cross-border criminality, including human trafficking. Away from the border, ZSL works with herder communities, to build sustainable livelihoods and protect the extraordinary wildlife they live alongside, directly reducing the risk of poaching. 

Photo - ZSL staff member (with back to camera) in a classroom with members of the community sat at desks
ZSL Mongolia Country Director Dr Tungalag Ulambayar leads a community IWT workshop in the Chinese border town of Zamiin-Uud

With ZSL’s support the Mongolian authorities have had significant successes. In July 2019, for example, detector dog Ace who was trained by ZSL and the UK Border Force to recognise the smell of ammunition just two weeks before, uncovered a poacher’s illegal shipment of 49,000 rifle bullets. As Naranbadrakh Boldbaatar, Director of the Detector Dogs Training Unit said: “I see 49,000 bullets seized as 49,000 animals saved.”

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