Illegal wildlife trade in Mongolia

Illegal wildlife trade in Mongolia

The illegal wildlife trade (IWT) in Mongolia has caused catastrophic declines of species that are vital for the steppe ecosystem – but are less well known than iconic victims of IWT such as elephants. Sandwiched between the two major economies of Russia and China, far from any ports, Mongolia’s wildlife trade is largely hidden from the outside world. Few countries have so much territory and featureless borders to monitor, with so few people and resources.

In 2006 the Silent Steppe report (Wingard and Zahler, 2006), documented dramatic falls in wildlife numbers since the early 90’s, when the vast steppes had been witness to “wildlife spectacles few places on earth could still boast. Marmots seemed as common as grasshoppers; white-tailed gazelles roamed the landscape a million strong; red deer grazed in front of apartments a few blocks from Ulaanbaatar’s city centre; and the rivers, were a fisherman’s dream.”

In 2018 ZSL completed Silent Steppe II: Mongolia’s Wildlife Trade Crisis, Ten Years Later. This shows that despite new laws and enforcement efforts by the Mongolian Government, the species most heavily targeted ten years ago are still the primary targets today.

  • Mongolia’s hunted wildlife can be low in value but high in volume, for example the Siberian marmot has seen a 75% decline in the past 30 years due to hunting for its fur – an estimated 850 000 were killed in 2015.
  • Illicit trade volumes far surpass legal quotas for hunting and trade: for example in 2009 the maximum number of wolves that could have been legally exported (under CITES) was 56, but that year alone, 312 carcasses were seized by customs; in 2015 surveys suggested that as many as 17 000 could have been killed.
  • During 1996-2015, 24,748 live saker falcons were exported legally for the falconry trade. The illegal trade in addition to this has meant that Mongolia’s saker falcon numbers have declined by over 60% in 20 years.
  • Illegal fishing has increased rapidly, and organised crime networks target the most profitable species: wolves (for fur), bear (for gallbladders and bile), red deer (for ‘blood antlers’), musk deer (glands) and snow leopard (fur and bones).

Siberian Marmot, Mongolia.
Siberian Marmot, Mongolia.

Silent Steppe II shows that IWT in Mongolia is driven by rapid changes, including:

  • Income growth in China has created a demand for the targeted species far above that which species can sustain, both for fur and products used in traditional medicines.
  • Foreign trade increased ten-fold from 1996-2015, straining under-resourced customs and inspections processes. Exports are largely made up of coal and minerals, sealed on-site by mining operators into 100-200 ton trucks that cross the border to China without proper inspections. It is in these types of trucks that inspectors have uncovered illegal wildlife specimens.
  • Imports of wildlife to Mongolia from Russia grew from $0.5M in 1996 to almost $9M in 2015 – and Mongolia is a transit country for products as diverse as lion and saiga antelope that pass through on the railway that runs north-south from Russia to China.
  • Organised crime networks are using increasingly sophisticated weaponry, equipment, logistics and international monetary transactions. Although enforcement efforts led to 112 court cases and confiscations of 8 000 wildlife specimens in 2015-2018, personnel from rangers to customs officials and police all report inadequate resources to respond, and corruption is all too common.

Local community member monitoring in the Gobi Desert
Local community member monitoring in the Gobi Desert

What is ZSL doing?

ZSL has worked on IWT in Mongolia since 2013. Our current actions include:

  • From 2018 to 2021, with funding from the UK Government’s IWT Challenge Fund, ZSL is undertaking a major project to secure Mongolia’s borders and communities against wildlife trafficking. With Mongolian partners and the UK Border Force, this will strengthen national law enforcement capacity by training and equipping Border Detector Dog units and law enforcement staff at three IWT hotspots.
  • Also funded by the IWT Challenge Fund, a new national Wildlife Crime Control Task Force will promote intelligence-sharing between agencies and across borders.
  • In border communities, we will build up new Community Surveillance Networks to boost awareness and reporting of IWT and associated cross-border criminality. Training for enforcement personnel to tackle IWT, human trafficking and corruption will increase security for vulnerable border communities, as well as benefitting wildlife.

Previous work, including Silent Steppe II, provide the foundation for current projects. ZSL provided targeted training to frontline law enforcement officers, and developed a Wildlife Product Identification app to help them identify wildlife products. To tackle the dispersed criminal networks behind IWT, in March 2018 ZSL launched a user-friendly IWT database that provides a centralised depository to share intelligence and IWT-related data from Mongolia’s various law enforcement agencies, producing a clear picture of international trafficking incidents and hotspots to target law enforcement.

ZSL and Legal Atlas reviewed Mongolia’s existing wildlife-related laws, submitting recommendations to the Mongolian government. ZSL is continuing to work with government agencies to encourage incorporation of the recommendations into Mongolia’s legal framework.

A further study since Silent Steppe II found that by October 2017 market availability of wildlife products had decreased from 2016 levels and public awareness of wildlife conservation had increased, although recent legislative changes related to illegal hunting were yet to reach the grassroots level.

In partnership with Mobicom, Mongolia’s largest telecom provider, an IWT awareness SMS text-messaging campaign reached approximately one third of Mongolia’s population (c. 1 million people) spreading vital information on IWT-related laws, and on the damaging impacts of IWT. 

PROJECT INFORMATION

Key species:

Siberian Marmot, Saiga antelope, snow leopard

People involved:

Dr Gitanjali Bhattacharya, Munkhjargal Myagmar, Myagmarsuren Shagdarjav, Dr Samuel Merson, Dr Gombobaatar Sundev.

Partners:

DEFRA, Ministry for Environment and Green Development, Mobicom, Legal Atlas.

More information:

Silent Steppe Report