A Conservation Strategy for Khulan in Mongolia: Background and Key Considerations. NINA Report 1889
Kaczensky, P.; Bayarbaatar, Buuveibaatar; Payne, John C.; Strindberg, S.; Walzer, C.; Batsaikhan, Nyamsuren; Bolortsetseg, Sanjaa; Victurine, R.; Olson, Kirk A.
Asiatic wild ass (Equus hemionus), referred to as khulan in Mongolian, are among the most mobile ungulates globally. Their movements exceed the much better known migrations of caribou in the Arctic or wildebeest and zebra in the Serengeti-Maasai Mara ecosystem. These wide-ranging movements allow khulan to thrive in large numbers under the harsh climate and unpredictable conditions of Central Asia’s resource-poor drylands. The very same harsh climate also gave rise to the traditional nomadic herding practised by local communities. However, this need to move makes khulan extremely vulnerable to the fragmentation and loss of habitat which is currently ongoing throughout their range. In turn, this mobility makes khulan an ideal umbrella species for largely intact and functionally connected dryland ecosystems, which could benefit many other threatened dryland species, ecological processes, and the local communities that rely on them. Long-distance movements and aggregations of ungulates fascinate people worldwide and safeguarding this globally declining phenomena and its associated ecosystem service has become a conservation goal in itself, formally recognized by the Convention of Migratory Species (CMS) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) via the IUCN Connectivity Conservation Specialist Group (https://conservationcorridor.org/ccsg/). Mongolia signed CMS in 1999 and in 2002 added the khulan to the list of CMS species. Other ecosystem services provided by khulan include large-scale nutrient re-distribution and seed dispersal, providing access to water for other species by digging in dry riverbeds, and facilitating access to vegetation for other wildlife by removal of senescent vegetation or digging craters in the snow. Khulan are prey for predators and carrion for scavengers, and a potential source of protein for local human communities. Their presence is also of spiritual, aesthetic, and cultural importance (“existence value”) for local people. Khulan, along with other species, have a largely untapped potential to add a wildlife component to Mongolia’s already thriving nature- and culture-based tourism. But like all wildlife living in multi-use landscapes, khulan also cause conflicts. They compete with livestock for pasture, they can also raid crops, cause traffic accidents, and their conservation needs to be considered in land-use planning, thereby constraining development options or necessitating costly mitigation measures. Balancing these costs and benefits in a way that provides for the needs of khulan and Mongolia’s economic development requires careful knowledge-based planning. With an estimated 64,000 khulan, the Mongolian Gobi currently holds >80% of the global population and constitutes >70% of the species’ global breeding range (Fig. 2). The global fate of khulan is therefore tightly linked to its conservation in Mongolia. Even in Mongolia, khulan have become constrained to the least productive and most unpredictable areas in the south. And after the construction of the fenced Trans-Mongolian Railway in the 1950’s, they became extinct on the Eastern Steppe and are now only found in the Gobi. On the IUCN Red List the khulan is currently listed as Near Threatened, but its status remains under close scrutiny because of multiple developments that may negatively impact the size, quality, and functional connectivity of the Gobi - Steppe ecosystem. These developments are happening simultaneously and at an unprecedented speed in an ecosystem which so far has remained in a near-natural state and include: 1) The dramatic and unconstrained increase in livestock populations and a change in the traditional herding system, resulting in competition with, and displacement of, khulan from pastures. 2) The rapid development of the resource extraction sector (mining and oil) and the associated influx of people and technical infrastructure, resulting in habitat degradation, destruction, and new sources of disturbance. 3) The rapid expansion and upgrading of the transportation infrastructure to meet the needs of mining development, and to connect Mongolia to international markets, resulting in habitat fragmentation. 4) Climate change with increasing temperatures and an expected higher frequency of extreme events like droughts and severe winter storms (dzuds), resulting in local or regional die-offs in ungulates and longer-term changes in water and pasture availability. 5) At the same time, historical threats, like illegal killing of khulan, persist. Mongolia has committed to large-scale conservation by setting aside >20% of its land surface as nationally protected areas and is aiming for a coverage of >30%. But for wide-ranging nomadic and migratory species like khulan, Mongolian gazelles, goitered gazelles, and saiga, protected areas alone will not be enough to safeguard their current population numbers and ecosystem functions. With the exception of the Great Gobi Strictly Protected Area (SPA), none of the protected areas are large enough to contain the movements of even a single khulan over an entire year, let alone its lifetime. This mismatch is particularly acute in the South Gobi Region, where most khulan now live. To maintain khulan at current population levels, they will need access to the multi-use landscape between protected areas and a high degree of landscape connectivity, both of which need to be explicitly considered in land-use planning and development. Against the backdrop of ongoing changes within the current khulan range in Mongolia, we believe that there is an urgent need for a national khulan conservation strategy which aims to: • Assemble a community of stakeholders from across Mongolia who are concerned about khulan conservation, feel impacted by khulan in their livelihoods, or may impact khulan or their habitat through their actions. • Within this stakeholder community, build a common understanding of the threats to khulan conservation in Mongolia based on projected land-use changes. • Develop a shared vision for the future of khulan conservation in Mongolia and a plan to guide its realization, focusing on urgent aspects of landscape-scale land-use planning, impact mitigation, and long-term monitoring. • Build a commitment for immediate action for khulan and an enabling planning, regulatory and funding framework through which actions can be sustained. • Leverage the khulan conservation strategy as a blueprint for similar conservation strategies for other wide-ranging ungulates falling under Mongolia’s commitment to the Convention of Migratory Species (CMS) and its Central Asian Mammals Initiative (CAMI).
Asiatic wild ass; Conservation; Ecosystem services; Equus hemionus; Khulan; Landscape connectivity; Mongolia; Threats
Full Citation
Kaczensky, P., B. Bayarbaatar, J. C. Payne, S. Strindberg, C. Walzer, N. Batsaikhan, S. Bolortsetseg, R. Victurine and K. A. Olson (2020). A Conservation Strategy for Khulan in Mongolia: Background and Key Considerations. NINA Report 1889. Tronheim, Norway: Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, 1-68.

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