Think of Mongolia, and you probably imagine impossibly open skies, the steppe flecked with horses and a solitary cluster of traditional gers (yurts). Mongolia is the least densely populated country in the world and one of exquisite natural beauty.
Sitting in central Ulaanbaatar, a buzzing city of 1.7 million inhabitants, it can be hard to believe that only three hours away, snow leopards haunt the mountains. In Ulaanbaatar, glass towers mould the skyscape around Mongolia’s parliament, and shiny new hotels and shopping malls line the streets.
Mongolia’s development has been driven by mining. It sits on vast mineral wealth, with over 6000 identified deposits of around 80 minerals. But despite the growth of the mining industry and the economy it fuels, Mongolia’s extraordinary ecosystems are also a critical ‘resource’ and one that sits deeply within the Mongolian psyche. Explain why the environment matters to most Mongolians and they look nonplussed. The importance of the land, and the animals and traditional way of life it supports, is so self-evident.
Mongolia was the first country in Asia to complete Red Lists (the globally recognised way of mapping species and their numbers) for all vertebrates. The national park south of Ulaanbaatar, founded in 1783, is the oldest legally protected nature reserve in the world. Mongolia has nearly 100 protected and strictly protected areas covering an area larger than the whole of the UK, and the most recent - to help preserve the critically endangered snow leopard - was agreed by parliament in April this year.
That doesn’t mean to say that there aren’t challenges: policy challenges; practical challenges; and public education challenges. Mongolia’s fragile ecosystems are also particularly susceptible to climate change - desertification is visible, and a growing problem.
The UK is working with Mongolia on these challenges, from developing ways to ensure the financial viability of sustainable, traditional herding, to supporting the growth of renewable energy.
Mongolia is also the latest country to join the global movement against the Illegal Wildlife Trade, first started in London.
In 2014, the UK led ambitious international agreements on IWT as hosts of the ground-breaking London Conference. We have maintained that support during the 2015 Botswana conference, and are supporting Vietnam to host a third high level conference in November this year. HRH the Duke of Cambridge and Defra Secretary of State Andrea Leadsom, will attend – as will Mongolia.
The UK government’s Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund, worth £13m, also supports governments and organisations around the world in their efforts to counter the illegal trade in wildlife.
Here in Mongolia the Zoological Society London (ZSL), through the IWT Challenge Fund, is working with the Mongolian Ministry of Environment & Tourism, and the Customs Authorities, on an innovative project to support understanding and combating of the illegal wildlife trade.
The first step is data. The last country-wide household survey on illegal wildlife trading took place 10 years ago. It’s hard for anyone to act if the scale and focus of the problem isn’t known. The initial results show an interesting shift away from mammals, indicating that even in remote communities, Mongolians are aware of measures the Mongolian government has taken to stem the illegal mammal trade.
The second is innovate work to support enforcement. Mongolia has layers of domestic and international legislation that prohibit or control the trade in endangered species.
But imagine being a customs official thousands of kilometres from the capital. Sometimes even knowing what animal the dried up pelt or paw once was can be a challenge. But you’re also faced by aggressive trafficking networks, often twisting the law to mask or fraudulently legitimise their activities.
So, with the Mongolian government, ZSL is addressing both of these. It’s supporting training programmes to help with identification. And is developing an innovative software tool, that will enable prosecutors to type in the circumstances of what’s been uncovered, and the relevant Mongolian laws that have been broken (if they have) will automatically appear, enabling a swift and robust legal response.
Tackling the illegal wildlife trade: why it matters
Let’s stop for a moment. Many of you, like most Mongolians, possibly don’t doubt the inherent value of conservation work for itself. But it’s reasonable to question this. Why does preserving particular animals matter? Who cares whether snow leopard skins are illegally trafficked - isn’t this a valid source of income for poor herders or the unemployed?
The short answer is that, like any illegal activity - and it’s important to stress that in Mongolia, like much of the world, trafficking protected species is illegal - it doesn’t just take iconic animals, such as the snow leopard, the saker falcon, and the taimen fish to extinction. It drives corruption. It undermines the laws that protect people and make a democracy, like Mongolia or the UK, work. It reinforces trafficking networks that, in some countries, also deal in people, arms and drugs.
But, in case you are still wondering about the poor herder who’s trying to make ends meet, the illegal wildlife trade - like all illegal trafficking - extorts the poorest and supports the gang-leaders, many of whom, globally, will be dealing in more intuitively damaging trades (people, guns, drugs) and many of whom are not even based in the country that is being exploited.
Simply put, a snow leopard skin might gain a herder $100. But its final market value outside Mongolia, could be up to $5000.
When the animals are gone, the environment is irrevocably damaged, the opportunity for sustainable ways of man and animals benefiting - such as though lucrative ecotourism or legal capture - are destroyed, the trafficking network moves on, to plunder somewhere else.
Of course, there are challenges. Leopards kill livestock. Marmots have always been a traditional delicacy in Mongolia. Funding rangers is expensive. But the advantage of legal solutions and compromises is that they are transparent. Communities can be consulted and involved. The resources of a country are managed by that country and its people, and returned to them according to their laws. And those who seek to hide in the shadows and exploit for their own, often trans-national, financial gain are more effectively stopped.
Undermining the illegal wildlife trade, doesn’t just matter to countries like Mongolia, which are home to beautiful, rare animals that sustain the illegal wildlife trade. In a global world, where illegal networks and black money stretch across countries and continents, it matters to all of us. Even those of us who don’t really care about snow leopards.
 TRAFFIC report, 2016
 “Separate drivers of extinction such as habitat loss and over-exploitation (such as poaching and fishing) tend to work together to heighten the extinction probability of the species they affect more than the simple sum of the individual effects alone.” Brook, BW, NS Sodhi, CJA Bradshaw. (2008) Synergies among extinction drivers under global change. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 23, 453-460
Read more on the value of ecosystem services.