Mongolia's Role in Preserving World Biodiversity

Article excerpt

B. Chimed-Ochir is Head of the Project Office, World Wide Fund for Nature, in Ulaanbaatar. He has worked for a variety of other agencies associated with biodiversity and environmental protection.

Mongolia's ecosystems are globally unique

Mongolia is of global biological significance because it is located at the convergence of the Great Siberian taiga, the Central Asian steppe and the Central Asian deserts. This means that Mongolia has a rich diversity in transitional ecosystems that occur nowhere else.

Mongolia's biological uniqueness also stems from its distinct cultural and human landscape. No other country's dominant culture is defined so thoroughly by the nomadic traditions of a herder's way of life. Because of the lack of geographically dispersed urban and industrial development, Mongolia's ecosystems are still relatively intact. With the country's high latitude and extreme continentality, these ecosystems are sensitive to anthropogenic (human) influences. Once altered by people, natural systems here are slow to recover.

The number of species in Mongolia is low compared with tropical or sub-tropical countries of similar size, and there are relatively few endemic species (species found nowhere else). Globally unique are the particular assemblages of species and the functioning ecosystems in which they live. Mongolia thus is an important base for the study and conservation of gene pools of many species of the Central Asian desert, steppe and taiga.

Although much of Mongolia is flat with rolling hills, there are several significant mountain ranges, notably the Altai, Khangal, Khentii and Khovsgol. Mongolia's average elevation is 1,580 meters above sea level with the highest peak (Khuiten Peak) 4,374 meters in the Altal mountains and the lowest point, Khokh Nuur, in the Eastern steppe. It is these distinct ecosystems that combine with Mongolia's extreme contieentality and sub-arctic geography to make Mongolia such a rich area for the study and preservation of biodiversiry. Because so few non-Mongols know or understand the richness and diversity of these environments I will briefly introduce their major oudines.

Along the western border are found the imposing Altai Mountains. The Altai's highest point is 4,374 meters. This range stretches in a 1500 km chain from the northwest corner of Mongolia southwards along the border, then southeast and east. The Altal is divided into the Mongolian Altai in the west and the Gobi-Altai, the lower, eastern part of the range.

The Khangai Mountains (highest point 3900 meters) cover a large part of central Mongolia; the Khentii Mountains (highest point 2977 meters) stretch from the capital, Ulaanbaatar, north to the border with the Russian Federation; and the area around Lake Khovsgol contains some small chains linked to the Sayan Mountalns in Russia. These three mountain groups consist mainly of rounded summits with forested lower slopes.

Several isolated massifs are situated in the zone lying to the south of the Altai. In the extreme southeastern corner of Mongolia runs a small part of the Great Khyangan Range. Otherwise, east and southeastern Mongolia consists of relatively low, level plains with an average altitude of 900-1500 meters.

As the map illustrates, an arid belt (semi-desert steppe) crosses the country from its northwest corner to the southeast, running between the Altai and Khangai ranges. This arid region of dry plains and basins also contains lakes, numerous enough in the northwest to give that area the name Great Lakes Depression. South of the Altai lies an area of desert known as the Trans Altai Gobi.

Six natural zones span the country

Mongolia is made up of six natural zones: high mountain, taiga forest, mountain forest steppe, steppe, semi-desert steppe, and desert. Each of these contalns important species, some of which are endemic to Mongolia and some of which are the last known examples of their species, such as the wild camel and the relict gull. …