Are herders and livestock bad for rare wildlife? It's complicated
The Denver Zoological Foundation, WCS(Wildlife Conservation Society) and other partners have published a paper appearing in the early view edition of Conservation Biology that looks at the positive and negative relationships occurring between pastoralists, livestock, native carnivores and native herbivores in the world's largest unfenced grassland and desert.
The paper illustrates that considering complex relationships between herders and rare wildlife is critical to balancing coexistence between them—enabling livestock, wildlife and humans to thrive in the area looked at and beyond.
The scientists synthesized 15 years of ecological and ethnographic data collected by Denver Zoological Foundation from Ikh Nart Nature Reserve in Mongolia's Gobi steppe, where the livestock and yurts of Mongolian herders dot the horizon. What they found was a web of direct and indirect relationships between pastoralists and wildlife that were neither inherently negative nor predictable.
"People and livestock are often viewed as detrimental to wildlife, but we found that effects are more nuanced," said lead study author, Dr. Stefan Ekernas, of the University of Montana and the Denver Zoological Foundation. "Herders may be part of the problem for rare wildlife, but herders are also key to any solution. We as conservationists have to address their needs and concerns if we want to keep the Gobi's magnificent wildlife for future generations."
The researchers found that, respectively, livestock and dogs comprise greater than 90 percent of ungulate (hoofed mammal) and large carnivore biomass in Ikh Nart. This, say the authors, is both good and bad for native herbivores including argali - the world's largest wild sheep that weigh up to 400 pounds and are common in the reserve. While more livestock reduces the amount of total pasturage and forage available to argali (a negative effect), livestock also serve as an alternative prey source to wolves and therefore relieve this predatory pressure from the argali population. As a result, wolf predation appears to have little impact on argali numbers. At the same time, argali are susceptible to being chased and killed by the shepherding dogs that are used by herders.
Ganchimeg Wingard, Director of Denver Zoo's Mongolia Program who, along with Dr. Richard Reading, has for two decades worked in the Gobi Desert's remote Ikh Nart Nature Reserve pointed out, "Nomadic herders in the Gobi lead hard lives, yet they have been invaluable allies to argali and other wildlife at Ikh Nart. Denver Zoo's 20-year commitment to Mongolia shows the payoffs that are possible when we make long-term investments in conservation and communities."
In another example of the complex relationships between pastoralists and wildlife, livestock were shown to be both beneficial and detrimental to wolves. While livestock comprises greater than 50 percent of most gray wolf diet (a benefit to the wolf population), wildlife conflict with pastoralists is a detriment. Having lost as many as half of their animals in a single year, some herders kill wolves in retribution, potentially at a rate that threatens the wolf population with local extinction.
"This project's importance is far beyond the Gobi Desert," said Dr. Joel Berger, a co-author of the paper, senior scientist with WCS and professor at Colorado State University. "It points to the increasingly complicated relationships between herders and rare wildlife and why it's important to help pastoralists think through options that better help them and the wildlife we wish to conserve."
Having identified many of the immediate and underlying causes driving conflict between herders and wildlife, conservationists are now turning their attention towards developing programs to support wildlife living alongside indigenous herders.