The Argali Mountain Sheep of Mongolia


Flag Expedition #9: The Argali Mountain Sheep of Mongolia
An Artist’s Study of the Animal and the Desert-Steppe

Quick Facts

Susan Fox
To travel to the Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve in Mongolia in July of 2009 to study, sketch and photograph endangered Argali, the world's largest mountain sheep.
July, 2009, Mongolia
Departure Date: 
11 years 45 weeks ago

In July, 2009, Susan Fox travelled to the Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve in Mongolia to study, sketch and photograph endangered argali, the world’s largest mountain sheep.  

Ongoing research on argali is being carried on by Dr. Richard Reading of the Denver Zoological Foundation, who consulted closely with Susan on her expedition. In particular, in working with Dr. Reading, Susan learned about strategies being used with local people to “try to induce changes in livestock husbandry practices that will benefit argali.” Upon her return home, she decided to look for ways to use the arts to support conservation. When the opportunity came along through the Denver Zoo to help a group of local herder women set up a crafts cooperative, she gladly took this on as her first effort. The cooperative provides the women with the opportunity to realize a revenue stream from the existence of the reserve, its visitors who come to stay at an eco-ger camp, and the on-going presence of Earthwatch Institute volunteers – who are based at the research camp in the reserve.

Since then, the director of the cooperative, which the women have named “Ihk Nart Is Our Future”, has visited almost every Earthwatch team, bringing a variety of felt items for purchase. Susan, through her non-profit association, Art Partnerships for Mongolian Conservation, has loaned the cooperative funds for the purchase of a felt press. She has also supplied a grant to pay for ten days of training for the director and one other woman and to acquire some additional tools. Donations have come in for the outright purchase of a second press and also 21 high-quality sewing scissors. “It’s a rare privilege to be involved personally with a project of this kind,” says Susan, “I’m looking forward to working with Ikh Nart Is Our Future for many years. Art has once again proved to be an important bridge between cultures.”

During the three-week expedition, Susan travelled to two additional locations, the Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve and the Baga Gazriin Chuluu Nature Reserve, where there are also populations of argali, to compare their status and conditions with those at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu. In the future, she wants to learn more about, and gather reference if possible (since many are nocturnal), of other species which share argali habitat, such as Siberian ibex and khulan (wild ass) and small carnivores like badger, Corsac fox and Pallas’ cat. The Reserve is also home to one of the largest nesting concentrations of cinereous vultures, the world’s largest.

Susan’s Flag Expedition was a success on all counts. She had multiple good sightings of argali at all three locations that she visited. One of the most significant happened on the very first day at Gun-Galuut when she took what turned out to be the first known photographs of an argali swimming across a river. She broadened her knowledge of the species by seeing them in different places, which will provide a larger context for her paintings.

Her meetings with the women at Ikh Nart exceeded everyone’s expectations. The women had come well prepared and were very enthusiastic. Susan and her scientist/translator were kept very busy for three solid days, but she did find time to offer a drawing lesson to three interested young people. By the time Susan left, there was no doubt that the cooperative would grow and thrive. Efforts are underway to find USA outlets for their work.

For the future, Susan plans to return to Mongolia, and Ikh Nart every year as time and finances allow. There have already been queries from herders in other areas who have heard about what is happening at Ikh Nart and want to learn more. So perhaps her expedition was really only a beginning. “I want to thank AFC for making my journey possible through their Flag Expedition grant program, the Denver Zoo for finding a way for an artist to aid their conservation efforts and Nomadic Journeys for their usual professional and reliable travel support while I was in Mongolia.


Flag Journal

In addition to her studies, sketches and photographing the sheep Susan will be providing both financial and business expertise resources. She is in a unique position to do this work. Susan has herder friends now at Ikh Nart and wants to become more involved in an on-going, positive way with people she's come to care about. This grant would ensure that she has the funds to make the trip back there. Some preliminary discussions with research staff have already taken place and the women are quite enthusiastic.)

She will travel to two additional locations, the Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve and the Baga Gazaryn area, where there are populations of Argali, to compare their status and conditions with those at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu. She  wants to learn more about and gather reference, if possible (since many are nocturnal), of other species which share Argali habitat, such as Siberian Ibex and small carnivores like badger, Corsac Fox and Pallasʼ cat. The Reserve is also home to one of the largest nesting concentrations of Cinereous Vultures, the worldʼs largest. 

Ikh Nartiin Chuluu is located in what is called a Desert Steppe or Gobi-Steppe Ecosystem, which covers 20% of Mongoliaʼs land area. It lies between the true Steppe and true Desert.

Many Central Asian endemic plants are found is this zone. The Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature reserve was created to conserve a large area of rocky outcroppings of about 43,000 ha. It has retained a relatively pristine ecology.

Until Dr. Reading began his research project, little was known about the Argali. However, the population is declining and the species is listed as threatened both internationally and in Mongolia. His goal is to “understand Argali sheep ecology well enough to develop a long-term conservation management plan” (from the Earthwatch project Expedition Briefing).

Argali are listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES). The US Endangered Species List includes them as threatened and they were listed as vulnerable on the 1996 IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals.

Besides the resident Argali, endangered Khulan or Asian Ass visit the southern part of the reserve in the summer. One hundred and twenty-four species of birds have been observed at Ikh Nart, including the endangered Saker Falcon.

Permanent and ephemeral streams and springs provide water, both for the wildlife and the local herder families. The presence of water attracts a variety of migrating birds.

Local herders and their animals live in and around the Reserve. A recent study demonstrated a 95% grazing overlap between the Argali and domestic livestock, which include horses, goats, sheep, cattle and bactrian camels. Sustainable land use is an environmental issue in many parts of the world, including Ikh Nart and Mongolia in general.


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