20 May 2010
By Onno van den Heuvel, Environment and Energy Programme Officer
The Altai Mountains are home to a variety of endangered species such as the snow leopard and the world’s largest wild sheep altai argali. Inhabited mainly by nomads, these mountains – stretching from the Gobi Desert in the south to the Siberian Tundra in the north, and forming a border between Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and China – hold several biodiversity hotspots mostly located in remote areas with limited access.
In the Mongolian part of the Altai Mountains, herders still live a traditional nomadic lifestyle. They live in harsh conditions, with temperatures commonly below the freezing point for most of the year and basic services often not available within a 100km distance. Up to 1990, these herders depended on centralised planning system for their grazing patterns and steady income. In the 1990’s, a wave of liberalisation led to the removal of strict regulations which resulted in land degradation, unrestricted hunting and habitat loss.
To protect the biodiversity in the region, the Mongolian Ministry of Environment with the support of UNDP launched, in 2009, the Altai Sayan Ecoregion Project, which involves herders in conservation of the mountains.
Under the project, herders form community groups of 10 to 15 members. These groups develop community plans for emergencies and seek funds from grants. This better prepares the herders to respond to natural disasters, tackle bitter cold winters and improve their income.
The participating herders are, also, trained to identify and collect data on the endangered animals and plants in their area. Such monitoring has generated new information about the habitat areas and the population numbers of important species.
Having up to date information about herds of animals is important not only for the sake of their conservation, but also for the planning of hunting, which is a significant source of revenue in Mongolia.
The project also empowers the community groups by allowing them to register as the sole users of natural resources in their area. In return, the groups are expected to protect these resources and manage them according to the set rules and regulations. For instance, the groups ensure that hunting is only carried out in the permitted seasons so as not to deplete the animal stock.
Today, more than 45 communities, covering an area larger than 376,000 hectares, have registered as sole users of natural resources under the Altai Sayan Ecoregion Project. To guarantee that the system is not misused, state environmental inspectors are tasked to monitor all the registered community groups.
Lately, some communities have ventured into tourism, setting up gers – Mongolian nomadic house, and offering camel rides. Others have decided to focus on producing small handicraft products. The Project stands ready to support other interested communities, if they choose, to set up their own tourism services.