By Jason Overdorf
Scientific American (February 2018)
Two days' drive from the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar, 100 miles from the country's border with China, the foothills of the Altai Mountains slash a jagged brown line across the scrubby southern Gobi grasslands. Home to hungry wolves and snow leopards and brutal winters, it is rough country for herders such as 57-year-old Otgonbayar, a weather-beaten nomad who works his flock of 1,000-odd cashmere goats and two dozen sheep from the back of a 100-cc Chinese motorcycle.
“The wolves were terrible this winter,” Otgonbayar says on a spring day in 2016, as his wife passes around a dented aluminum bowl filled with Russian candies and sugar cubes. “If it weren't for my dog, my losses would have been much greater.” Just a few days earlier wolves had killed four of his animals. In a typical season, they can take 50 or more.
Since the 1990s, to compensate for the animals lost to predators and inclement weather, herders such as Otgonbayar have vastly increased the size of their flocks, which has led to overgrazing that has plunged the steppe into a vicious cycle of herd expansion and environmental degradation. Now, however, an American biologist-turned-entrepreneur named Bruce Elfström is working with the herders to break that pattern by reintroducing a tool developed thousands of years ago: an indigenous livestock guardian dog known as the bankhar. “The idea was to find the dogs of old, their grandfathers' dogs, then breed them and give them back to the people. The goal being that without the fear of predators, they won't raise so many goats, which are turning the steppe into desert,” Elfström says.
Before Mongolia abandoned communism in the 1990s, socialist controls dictated how many animals herders could raise. Regulations prevented overgrazing through a system of rotating pastures, and the government made sure herders in remote grasslands could get their meat and wool to market. During the country's transition to a market economy, that scheme was dismantled. The government privatized the herds, but the pastures remained common land. That arrangement encouraged herders to raise more animals without providing any incentive to preserve the range. At the same time, the rise of neighboring China resulted in soaring demand for cashmere, explains Zara Morris-Trainor, a doctoral candidate at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, who is studying the impact of the trade on Mongolia's snow leopards.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991—which resulted in a precipitous drop in bilateral trade with Russia—made Mongolia more dependent on China. Almost overnight, nomads who had traditionally raised a mixed herd of camels, goats, horses, sheep, cattle and yaks began ramping up herd sizes with more and more cashmere-producing goats, which are harder on the soil because their sharp hooves puncture the biological crust that prevents wind erosion. Historically accounting for less than a fifth of all livestock, goats made up about a third of some 29 million domesticated grazers by 1996. By 2015 the goat population had surged to nearly 24 million out of a total herd of 56 million livestock.
The expansion of Mongolia's desert has kept pace with that increase. Since 1996, which was also the year in which the country first joined the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, the amount of its land severely impacted by desertification has more than tripled to around 100,000 square miles—about a sixth of Mongolia's total land mass. As much as 80 percent of the damage is the result of overgrazing, researchers at Oregon State University concluded from satellite maps of the vegetation in 2013.
Over roughly the same period, uncontrolled hunting and habitat destruction have killed 75 to 90 percent of various prey animals. Their downfall has forced wolves and snow leopards to target the nomads' herds, even as ever more frequent winter storms known as dzuds have periodically killed millions of livestock. Without other adequate forms of insurance, the nomads have taken matters into their own hands: in good times, they have enlarged their herds in hopes of ending up with at least some animals in the spring; in lean times, they have confined their livestock in smaller areas to try to protect them. Both responses have intensified the problem of desertification.
Making matters worse, because the herders are impotent against drought, snow and climate change, many of them focus their resentment on predators. Reliable statistics about how many animals they kill are hard to come by. But as many as 14 percent of Mongolian herders interviewed for a 2002 study admitted to killing snow leopards in retribution for dead livestock. And experts still cite retaliatory killings as among the main threats to the big cats, according to Bayarjargal Agvaantseren, director for the Snow Leopard Trust's partner organization in Mongolia. Wolves are in the crosshairs, too. “For wolves, there is still local-government-level hunting organized annually in some areas,” Agvaantseren says. Conservationists fear for the future of both species in Mongolia.
Elfström believes he can help. In 2013 he designed a program to reduce livestock losses—and thereby encourage support for wildlife conservation—by bringing back the bankhar, a large, black-and-brown mountain dog. The Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project has set up a breeding and training center near Ulaanbaatar and placed the dogs with nomads who face high pressure from predators. Otgonbayar is one of the first participants. “The goal is to take what we're doing and hand it off to Mongolians so we can have satellite breeding centers around the country,” says the 51-year-old Elfström, who owns a Connecticut-based off-road driving school called Overland Experts.
Bankhars were once ubiquitous on the Mongolian steppe. In a nod to their fearsome nature, the traditional Mongolian greeting is “Hold your dog.” Dogs are the only animals the Mongolians believe to be worth naming. Various defining myths and folktales—including the origin myth that traces the birth of Genghis Khan to the coupling of a blue wolf and a fallow deer—confirm that traditionally nomads believed that the Mongolians and their dogs were “of the same bones,” notes anthropologist Gaby Bamana, currently a visiting scholar at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.
Despite their cultural importance, however, true bankhars have mostly disappeared since the communist era. A symbol of independence, fierce, territorial dogs were unsuited to the ideology of the times and the practical realities of state-owned herds, which allowed herders to keep only seven animals per person as private property. There was even a brief craze for bankhar fur coats in Moscow in the 1930s. Furthermore, crossbreeding between bankhars and other dogs, including an influx of German shepherds that accompanied the effort to build the Trans-Siberian Railroad in the 1940s and the guard dogs and household pets of more than 100,000 Russian military personnel who moved to Mongolia in the 1960s, has diluted the gene pool of the indigenous bankhar population. Indeed, it is hard to find bankhars that have not been crossed with foreign breeds, which can reduce their effectiveness as livestock protectors by reintroducing predatory traits that breeders promote in dogs like the German shepherd.
The expertise required to raise effective bankhars is also in short supply. The same collectivization programs that discouraged their use resulted in the loss of much traditional knowledge. Few of the herders whose families have occupied the steppe for generations now remember how to rear dogs to protect livestock.
Why, then, is Elfström intent on reviving the bankhar? Guardian dogs are still common elsewhere in the world, from the ovcharka in the Caucasus to the Anatolian shepherd in Turkey to the Great Pyrenees in the West. Why not just import these breeds to Mongolia?
One reason is biological. Like the forebears of other guardian dogs, the bankhar was not created through the kind of careful inbreeding that resulted in modern breeds such as the Great Dane or golden retriever. Rather it evolved through a combination of natural and artificial selection: the best specimens thrived, whereas the nomads did not feed useless ones and culled those that chased or killed livestock. The result is a dog that is purpose-built for guarding flocks under harsh conditions.
Standing between 26 and 33 inches tall at the shoulder and weighing 80 to 125 pounds, bankhars are remarkably well adapted to the challenges of the steppe, where temperatures can soar to 100 degrees Fahrenheit in summer and plunge to 50 below zero in winter. Their thick, shaggy fur, which feels almost as fine as cashmere to the touch, features a heavy undercoat that protects them from the cold in the winter and is shed in the summer, when they sometimes dig underground dens to escape the heat. Bankhars also need less food than other livestock guardian dogs of similar size—perhaps because they have evolved a slower metabolism, Elfström suggests—an important consideration in a region where many families have little to spare.
But cultural reasons, rather than biological ones, ultimately prompted Elfström to settle on reintroducing the bankhar instead of importing a similar guardian dog such as the ovcharka, which thrives in extreme climates elsewhere in Central Asia. Decades of Soviet meddling have left Mongolians wary of foreign advisers, and herders are especially skeptical that a bunch of Americans who do not seem to know a goat from a sheep will have anything to teach them. The bankhar, however, still has great cultural significance: traditionalists are convinced that the revered dogs can see into the spirit world, and more modern herders view them as a powerful symbol of national pride. “Everybody wants a bankhar,” Elfström says. If he can forge a relationship with the herders through the bankhar program, perhaps they will be amenable to other conservation efforts.
Ups and Downs
Thus far Elfström and his team have bred and distributed more than 60 bankhar puppies to herders. Although the project is in its early stages, a detailed study of its impact is now under way, and Elfström says he has “firm data” showing a 90 to 95 percent drop in the livestock killed by predators. The scheme has attracted the interest of nonprofit groups, including the Snow Leopard Trust and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). In 2016 the WCS helped to place six dogs with three families in an area of the Gobi that sees a lot of predation from wolves and raptors, according to Onon Bayasgalan, a conservationist who works with the WCS in Mongolia. “If the bankhar initiative proves to be a success with these herder families, we will consider expanding the number of families receiving the dogs. In the future, we may also consider collaborating with the bankhar project in our other project sites,” Bayasgalan said in 2016. This year Elfström is supplying the WCS with another 10 to 14 dogs.
Conservationists hope that by reducing stock losses, the dogs can help generate support for other ambitions, such as “sustainable cashmere,” which requires that the nomads focus on smaller herds to produce high-quality wool that they can sell for a higher price than regular wool. Already the distribution of puppies is acting as an informal reward for model herders such as Otgonbayar, whose rangeland is near a protected area for snow leopards. Elfström himself aims to institute further incentives to encourage herders to refrain from killing predators once he has shown how effective the dogs can be at deterring them.
That said, he has run into several hurdles. In May 2016 Mongolian environmental regulations forced him to shift his breeding center to a new location near Hustai National Park in the north of the country, thereby prompting a reboot of the project. Because of an accident, the faithful four-wheel-drive van that the team used to transport dogs and equipment now needs to be replaced. And although herders covet the bankhars, it is a constant struggle to find ones who are willing to implement the training protocol necessary to raise the puppies to be effective working dogs. The regimen, which requires keeping the puppies corralled with the livestock from the age of six to 13 weeks so that they bond to the goats and sheep the way pet dogs do to humans, is not complicated, but it requires a herder who is willing to listen.
More discouraging, the collaboration with the Snow Leopard Trust has stalled. A little headway has been made, but Gustaf Samelius, assistant director of science for the trust, says it is not actively working to place dogs from Elfström's bankhar project because all the nomads in the areas where the organization works already have dogs of their own. “From the few people I've talked to, they all seem to be happy with the dogs they have,” Samelius says.
That claim is a major source of frustration for Elfström. Virtually without exception, the dogs in question are strays or crossbreeds that were not raised to bond with the herders' livestock, he says. They provide some deterrent against predators, mostly by barking if a snow leopard comes near the corral at night, but they cannot be trusted to guard the herd in the pasture because they are bonded to the family rather than its livestock. They are more likely to follow the shepherd back to the yurt than to keep watch over the flock.
Despite Samelius's assertion that nobody wants them, the bankhar team is working on its own to place pups with families who live in the same areas where the Snow Leopard Trust is active, though perhaps not the same families who say they are satisfied with their current dogs. Herders sometimes call their untrained crossbreeds bankhar out of ego or loyalty. But when they are offered a true, working bankhar from the breeding project, “all of a sudden, their dog becomes a mix, and they want ours,” Elfström says.
“Many people, including scientists, are still of the mindset that ‘a dog is a dog,’ despite an overwhelming glut of papers and data to prove them wrong,” Elfström says. “Herders know bankhars are not just dogs.” Research has shown that similar livestock guardian dogs have had dramatic impacts in Africa, Australia, Europe and the western U.S., where breeds such as the Great Pyrenees and Anatolian shepherd have reduced or eliminated livestock losses to cheetahs, coyotes, dingoes, foxes, bears and wolves. In Namibia the introduction of some 450 Anatolian shepherds over the past 20 years virtually eliminated livestock predation by cheetahs, helping to convince farmers to stop killing as many as 1,000 big cats a year. In Mongolia, where wildlife conservation is in its infancy, the effect could be equally dramatic, Elfström believes.
Provided the project succeeds in breeding enough dogs and in convincing enough nomads to rear them the right way, a reduction in retribution killings is likely. Other successful livestock guardian dog programs, including Cheetah Outreach in South Africa, have convinced farmers to sign contracts agreeing to not kill predators, leading to a sharp decline in retribution killings. And evidence from a livestock vaccination program run by the Snow Leopard Trust in Pakistan suggests that reducing livestock losses can encourage farmers to raise fewer animals: the program helped to reduce herd sizes by 17 percent.
But even if Elfström does succeed in persuading people to limit the size of their flocks, changing the practices of a few herders will be merely a Band-Aid on the proverbial bullet hole, he realizes, unless it is accompanied by a raft of other nonprofit efforts and policy measures aimed at conserving the Mongolian steppe and its denizens. Luckily, many such programs are already underway. Ulaanbaatar-based Sor Cashmere, for instance, is working to popularize cashmere made from the hair of yaks and camels, which are less environmentally damaging than goats. The Wildlife Conservation Society, for its part, is working with herders, mining companies and other stakeholders to fund ecological mitigation projects and promote sustainable goat cashmere.
“What we want to see is the herders moving more. What we want to see is them having a diverse herd. What we want to see is them not having extra animals to counter the fact that they're going to lose so many,” Elfström says. “But that requires that we work with other nongovernmental organizations. We can't do everything.”