Researchers work to keep khulan from extinction

August 11, 2006

CORVALLIS, Ore. – In the Gobi region of Mongolia in northeastern Asia, the khulan race across the desert following the rain. In the competition for limited resources on this arid landscape, these threatened Asiatic wild asses may be losing out to domestic livestock, development and poachers.

Conservative estimates from researchers involved in the Khulan Project – a joint venture between the International Center for the Advancement of Pastorial Systems, the University of Frieberg, Oregon State University and Texas A&M University to study the threatened animals – suggest that the khulan population is decreasing at a rate of about 10 percent per year.

"Like any threatened animal, the khulan are incredibly fragile," said Cody Sheehy, the director of a short video on the Khulan Project and a graduate student in OSU's College of Agricultural Sciences. "If we are really interested in preserving this species, something needs to be done right now. We can't afford to wait 10 years; in 10 years they could be extinct."

Khulan are one of four species of wild ass still living in the wild in the remote regions of Asia. They join the kiang from Tibet, the onager from northern Iran and the khur from the borderlands of India and Pakistan as residents of areas that until recently have been sparsely populated by humans. Today's commercial growth across Asia, and increasingly in Mongolia, has potential to fragment the vast landscape khulan need to survive, and is forcing an increase in the overlap between the lives of the nomadic wild asses and the lives of the semi-nomadic herding groups.

In Mongolia, khulan are considered to compete for pastureland and forage by some herders, and this contention has led to requests to the Mongolian government to reduce the khulan population. Also, despite a 1953 ban on the hunting of khulan, many animals continue to fall to poachers who sell their meat covertly in markets, according to Petra Kaczensky and Dennis Sheehy, two of the main scientists involved in the Khulan Project.

Sheehy and Kaczensky, along with the other researchers involved in the project, are working to develop a management strategy that balances the needs of the Mongolian people with the demands of the roughly 18,000 khulan in the country. To do this, the group is using data collected from tagged animals representing seven different social groups as well as global positioning information collected from volunteer Mongolian herders to create a layered map juxtaposing the range of the khulan with the areas commonly used by herders and their domestic charges.

The maps allow scientists to better identify land-use conflicts between the herders and the khulan.

"At the beginning of the project only the khulan were being tracked," said Doug Johnson, a professor in OSU's Department of Rangeland Ecology and Management, and a specialist in the spatial behavior of livestock across landscapes. "In order to fill in the other half of the equation we asked the herders to carry small GPS units with them as they went out with their animals. We also asked them to take notes of where they saw Khulan, and in this way we have been able to piece together a clearer image of where their paths are crossing."

The researchers found that the herders on average travel only about 4.5 miles from their water site, usually a mechanized well, each day. The herders tend to stay around well sites for several days at a time, and because of the khulan's timid nature these well sites force a possible displacement of the khulan in the landscape. The khulan, on the other hand, follow cloudbursts and quality forage across the landscape, and are capable of traveling vast distances in small periods of time. This difference in landscape use between the herders and the khulan is one reason the researchers said it may be hard for local people to understand the needs of the khulan population.

Although the khulan and herders have co-existed in the Gobi for millennia, the changing dynamics of human intrusion with development of the market economy has the potential to quickly and severely impact sustainability of the khulan population, said Sheehy, who first brought his son, Cody, to Mongolia in the early 1980s.

The researchers added that in order to develop a viable management strategy for the khulan, decision-making must occur on the landscape level.

Cody Sheehy's video, "Khulan," documents a portion of the Khulan Project, and is available along with more information about the project on the web at http://khulan.org/.  

Author: Aimee Lyn Brown
Source: Douglas Johnson