GURVAN TES TO HONGORYN ELS
After a briefing from the Snow Leopard Trust field biologist, we set out to visit families who have recently received MBDP dogs. Our route today will take us from Gobi red cliffs, across vast green steppes, through granite mountain passes and into sand dunes. The families are spread out across the area, and our mission is two-fold: assess the progress of the project dogs and at the same time gather survey data on predator activity, livestock losses, and any interaction with predators. The process is informal, and allows us to learn a little about the day-to-day concerns of the nomads beyond the scope of the project.
One thing the field team has made clear to us is that when visiting families we should never get out of the truck if we cannot see a dog’s owner because the dog will likely be incredibly protective. In fact, there is a traditional greeting when approaching a ger. You should shout “Nokhoikhor” which means “hold the dog.”
The host families were selected based on a set of criteria, however, the MBDP has given priority to those in areas with the most predator pressure. The quantity of livestock the family owns is one factor in placement decisions — an adult Bankhar can adequately protect up to 150-200 sheeps or goats. Finally, the project evaluates the family’s relationship with existing dogs. If a family has other dogs, are they working dogs or pets? The project avoids placing the Bankhar with families that keep their dogs by the ger rather than working out with the herds. MBDP prefers to place dogs with families that already have working dogs, or who don’t have a dog at all, though they will under certain circumstances give a dog to a family that has ger dogs, but promises to keep the Bankhar away from the pets.
To be considered for the program, a family must agree to raise and care for the dogs following a specific protocol (for example, they are not permitted to leave the dog tied up, because that means the dog has little chance in bonding with its livestock and developing the protective behaviors needed). And the host families sign a contract to care for the dog throughout its life.
When a new dog joins a herding family the family will feed it milk (sometimes milk is sprinkled on the dog) and whisper its name into its ear. In Mongolia, Bankhars are thought to be “of the same spirit” as humans, and dogs are the only animals that are given names. The youngest or a child of the family is often given the honor of whispering the name. Traditionally milk is thought to bind the dog to the soul of the family; the life blood in a way. The name is given in a whisper so as not to draw the attention of evil spirits who might give bad luck or cause the dog or family harm.
There are many traditions that are followed here, and everything from the position of the ger (with the door always facing south) to the specific places people are seated within it are defined by custom. Each member of a family group occupies a particular place in the ger circle (the zone that encloses and defines the family). Men have the north side of the ger, woman the right or east side, guests the west or, if very important, the north side. People thought less important place themselves in the door way area. Interestingly no other animal is seen as part of this circle, except the dog, whose position is outside the ger and to the right of the door to protect the hearth and its family inside.
Explaining how the dogs have changed his family’s circumstances, one herder tells visitors, “Now, nothing comes near our herd at night. If anything does, she barks in an alarming way, so we come out before it can attack. She learned to patrol all night and is protecting them well.” Their Bankhar could save this one family the equivalent of 3 months income just by deterring one wolf attack sometime in the next 12 to 18 years (and it could also save that one wolf’s life).
The “field started” puppies are placed with select herders at 7-9 weeks old. The pups are placed in male-female or male-male pairs (data on most livestock guardian dogs shows female-female pairs do not work well due to high levels of sister aggression). These pups live in what’s called a “saravch” (a barn area lean-to) and the khashaa until they are 4-5 months old. Once they show an interest in following the herd out in the morning, the herders start letting the pups out with the herd and water and feed the pups out in the pasture. As part of the “assessment” it is important to look at the dogs’ behavior to confirm that the herder is following the raising protocol closely. The most obvious clue is that the dog follows the livestock around rather than the herder himself. We also look at the body language of the puppies when they are with the sheep.
During our visits we could see how some of the “early placement” pups are showing fantastic bonding behavior, returning to the sheep and ignoring the humans after an initial “introduction.”
Late in the afternoon we follow the Uujim passage into the sand dunes known as Hongoryn Els. The largest and most impressive sand sea in Mongolia, these dunes extend along the northern side of Sevrei and Zuulun mountain ranges covering an area of more than 900 square kilometers. The wind continuously blows from North towards West and the dunes can reach heights of between 100 and 300 meters. They are known as ”singing dunes” because of the distinctive noise made by the wind as it moves the sand. Beyond the dunes, the steppe seems to go on forever.
[Photos courtesy Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project/OEX]