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Mongolian Gazelle Health Evaluations
Drs. William Karesh and Sharon Deem
Daybreak in Mongolia. 4:30, 23 Jun 99
Dr. Sharon Deem, another field vet from the Wildlife Conservation Society, and I arrived yesterday afternoon in Ulaan Baator, the capital of Mongolia, after a 17-hour flight from New York to Seoul, Korea, and a quick 3-hour connecting flight. The second flight carried us across the Great Gobi Desert where turbulence over the desert jarred the emergency exit door, causing the alarm to sound and the emergency lights to flash. A flight attendant pounded on the door handle until the alarm quieted down, but I requested that he stop doing that at 30,000 feet. We continued the flight with the annoying alarm as background noise. Finally, the vast plains dotted with an occasional ger (traditional round white felt tent) and clusters of livestock provided an exciting enough distraction for us to forget about the noise.
We landed and cleared immigration and customs with our 11 pieces (300 pounds) of baggage. Sharon and I are here to provide the local wildlife authorities with a health assessment of wild Mongolian gazelles, which once numbered in the millions and lived throughout eastern Mongolia, Russia, and China. Over-hunting in the neighboring countries has left this region of Mongolia with the only significant populations of the little-studied gazelle. Herds of up to 50,000 of these 40-90 pound golden-brown gazelles roam the vast, unfenced steppes of eastern Mongolia. Late June and early July is the calving season, and thousands of females will find their way to a few traditional calving grounds, lush with green grass, to give birth. As the early fall approaches, they will take their kids and migrate across the steppes to areas that have yet to be completely identified.
The adult gazelles are difficult to approach and would be virtually impossible to dart with a tranquilizer gun. The newborn calves, on the other hand, are fairly easy to catch in the foot or two of tall grass. Each will receive a physical examination (neonatal exam), and we'll collect a blood sample to evaluate their health status. The blood samples will tell us if the calves are suckling from their mothers, and laboratory testing will reveal which infectious diseases their mothers have been exposed. The dams produce antibodies against diseases and pass these on to their offspring during pregnancy and through their milk during the first day or two of life. Our tests will tell us which diseases the gazelles have immunity to and which ones they do not.
But right now, we are only halfway to our field site. After our arrival yesterday, we immediately went to work by re-packing our gear and searching the city for liquid nitrogen. We need this ultra-cold liquid (minus 270 degrees) to freeze the samples. Poor translations prior to our arrival resulted in 6 gallons of nitric acid being bought for us by mistake. Our contacts finally tracked down one of Mongolia's nuclear physicists, and he kindly loaned us one of the only liquid nitrogen tanks in the entire country.
Later this morning, Sharon and I will fly to the eastern border of the country and meet up with the rest of the field team. They preceded us by a week to identify calving sites and set up the field camp. If all goes well with the flights and a five- or six-hour drive across the steppes, we should arrive at camp late this evening.
24 June, 1999
Luck must have been with us yesterday and just as it got dark, we made it to camp. Things got a little tense at the airport this morning, when the airline staff said they could not fly with liquid nitrogen on a passenger plane. Someone suggested that we check with air cargo and since we had thirty minutes before boarding, we jumped in the jeep and drove to air cargo. They said they would be happy to send it on the next plane, which turned out to be our plane. When Sharon and I boarded the old twin engine prop plane, the tank was sitting in the back of the passenger section.
An hour and a half later, we landed in the provincial capital of Choibalsan. It was an important military position during Soviet times due to its proximity to the eastern border with China. Now roughly 35,000 people live in the area. Sharon and I were met by two staff members from the U.N. Development Program's Biodiversity project based here. Our gazelle health project fits in with their efforts to help develop sound wildlife management and natural resource plans. We loaded our gear into a thirty-year-old Russian jeep and set off across the plains bumping along a dirt road. Six hours later, we found our teammates-to-be just getting ready to eat dinner, a traditional Mongolian meal of mutton and potato soup. They had chosen a hillside spot with a view spanning twenty or thirty miles of open plains. The constant strong winds of the day had finally died down and as it got dark the air chilled quickly.
Today we spent the day organizing our medical gear and searching for herds of gazelles. It hasn't rained as much as we had expected and while there is new green grass growing, many of the rolling hills are a mix of short lush grass and taller golden-brown grass left over from the winter. Due to the relatively dry conditions, the gazelles are spread out in smaller groups than their normal mass gatherings at calving season. This will make our work a little more difficult. We were mostly able to find only groups of ten or twenty gazelles, but a few times we spotted herds of up to a hundred animals.
It's still a bit early for calves. Using binoculars, we could see that most of the females still look pregnant. We only saw a few calves up and running. Hunting pressure is high in this area and the gazelles take off across the plains or nearest hills as soon as they see or hear a vehicle. This project should be challenging.
Sunday night, 27 June, 99
Gazelles are popping out all over the place. For the first two days, we'd drive up to ten miles from camp looking for small groups of adult females. Most are still pregnant, but nearby we could find small patches of calves hiding in the grass. They had been born during the previous night or two. Their mothers feed them during the night and early morning and then wander off to graze for the day. This morning finally, we found huge groups of females. One numbered over a thousand. They were grazing in an area that had burned since last winter and had grown back with short grasses and forbes. Babies were hiding everywhere.
As if searching for Easter eggs, we fanned out on foot to find the tawny-brown newborns. Their color blends perfectly with the old dried clumps of grass, but their ears and big black eyes are a dead giveaway. If they have been born within the last three or four hours, you can quietly sneak up and catch them by hand. If they are older, you have to crawl silently through the dry grass stickers and try to get them with a homemade version of a fish dip net. If someone simultaneously distracts the baby's attention by approaching it from the opposite direction, chances of success are greatly enhanced. If the calf senses a threat for which hiding is not a good enough defense, it will spring to its feet and make a seven second hundred-yard-dash.
When all goes right, the catcher kneels down and quickly gets the little gazelle safely tucked between his or her legs. A few of the kids will bleat once or twice, but most remain silent. They are carefully placed in a cloth bag and weighed with a hanging scale. Newborns are roughly seven to ten pounds. Then Sharon or I give each one a physical exam, looking for any abnormalities such as a cleft palate or an infected navel. A blood sample is collected easily from its jugular vein, and a bright yellow, numbered tag is placed in its ear, boys on the left ear, girls on the right. Notes are made as to the character of the vegetation the baby is hiding in, the proximity of its mother and others, the time of day and the exact location. The procedure takes only a few minutes and then the youngster is quietly placed back in its original place. Some immediately resume hiding while others jump and run off. Some seem confused and stand up and wander around us as if we are possibly their mothers coming to feed them. But they figure it out quickly and trot off.
Our search party fans out across the plain again, in search of the next one. After hours of walking and searching in the constant wind and brilliant sun, we managed to catch, mark and examine ten kids during the first two days. If the gazelles are more than a day old, they are too alert and too quick to catch. So we may see fifty or sixty babies, stalk thirty, and catch only ten. This morning's find of huge herds feeding in the short new grass provided us with the opportunity to catch 25 calves. Most of the females we viewed with binoculars are still pregnant, and staying close to their herdmates who are caring for the young they've given birth to over the last few days. I think we've found the perfect place to work for the next few days.
30 June, 99
I may have exaggerated a bit when I described our site as the "perfect place" the other day. In fact, entropy appears to be setting in. In three days, we've had four flat tires. Fittingly, one tire had a broken off gazelle horn driven through it. Fixing a flat in the field of course means removing the tire from the rim by using a wedge and the back of an ax to beat it. Inner tubes are essential, as are old pieces of rubber for patching. The brakes on our old Russian jeep broke but Dundar, our driver, was able to fix them. Today, the front suspension rod on Vadim's van broke so whenever he hits a slight bump the tire rubs inside the wheel well. Vadim is a Russian scientist studying the ecology of gazelles in Mongolia for part of the year. The rest of the year he manages a wildlife reserve across the northern border in Russia. He drove his fifteen-year-old van down here for the project and will have to limp home slowly when we are finished.
My buddy Stacey e-mailed from New York to tell me about a wine tasting she attended the night before. The event contrasted with the fact that we've only been drinking tepid water from a well that has dead, bloated mice floating on the surface. It takes an hour to get to the well just to get water to bring back to camp and then we have to boil it to make it safe (but not very tasty). No one can wait for the water to cool off so most of it is drunk while it's still warm. The bread we brought out from town dried out the first day so we've been joking about living on stale bread and water. But the views are spectacular. Sunsets fill a vast horizon and the full moon has been rising in Scorpio.
The night before last, lightning hit the plains upwind from camp, about 2 Km away. Dundar, another driver and I couldn't get the resulting grass fire under control by ourselves and I raced back across the steppe to camp to bring more water and people to fight the fire. We had a another flat about halfway to the growing blaze and ran the rest of the way with 40 pound containers of water. But when we got there it was "Hopeless," as Lhagva kept screaming over the roar of the advancing wall of fire. He made Sharon and the others run back to camp to start packing up while he and I searched the other two men that were still trying to beat it out with a shovel and piece of tire inner tube. We all ran in front of the half-mile wide burning front to the van, started it with the pair of scissors that serves as a key, and drove it with the completely flat tire back to camp. In a fury of activity, we dismantled the ten tents, threw the gear in the jeep and van and moved a couple of miles away. George Schaller, Director of Science for WCS and Kirk Olson, a graduate student from the U.S. were out radio tracking gazelles so they didn't know anything was wrong. With only two vehicles, it took two trips to get the gear moved out of harm's way and we got the last load with about 10 minutes to spare. It is still burning today, the leading edge has advanced about 15 miles and the back end (against the wind) made its way around our new camp. We back-burned a little ring around camp so we had an island forty yards across of unburned grass in a sea of black that stretches to the horizon in every direction. On the upwind side, the short grass fire can be extinguished by just rubbing your shoes across it. So we could still drive in and out of the fire zone to work. Last night flames and smoke were still rising from the distant hills all around us.
Luckily, eighty percent of the females had not calved before the fire. Ones with calves four or five days old will easily move away from the burned area with their youngsters following them. The younger ones will have a harder time. We watched some of the newborns get up and run a hundred yards or so when the flames nearly touched them. Hopefully, they can keep away from the advancing fire and their mothers will find them. The good news so far is that we searched large areas of the burned grasslands and didn't find any injured baby gazelles. Apparently, most of the gazelles have moved on to greener pastures (so to speak) and it was time for us to do the same.
Despite the unexpected difficulties, we managed to examine close to fifty young gazelles. We've been collecting blood samples for health testing from each one and have a "field laboratory" consisting a microscope and other medical equipment that we've configured to run on power from car batteries.
With the microscope, we can perform white blood cell counts to provide a simple indicator of immune system function. With a centrifuge, we can separate off serum from the whole blood to be frozen in liquid nitrogen for infectious disease testing back in the U.S. The fifty samples will provide the first comprehensive information on the health status of Mongolian gazelles. This type of information is virtually nonexistent for most species except humans and domestic animals.
So with the excellent samples from the southern part of the province safely frozen, we've decided to head north to the other main gazelle population. Most of the team will remain behind to monitor the southern gazelles while Sharon and I move north with Vadim to his regular study site. The "adventure" continues.
3 July, 99
Well, the adventure did continue in ways we did not anticipate. On the drive back to Choibalson, the regional capital, we stopped to rest at a crest on the plains. No sign of human habitation could be seen as far as the horizon in any direction. A huge pile of rocks and empty bottles topped the hill and was marked with a stick and an old piece of cloth flapping in the wind. This monument was an Ovoo (pronounced “awa”), part of an ancient Mongolian traveler’s ritual. We all got out to add a few stones and walk around the pile three times to bring us good fortune and a safe journey before heading down the dusty dirt track again. Maybe it worked – we did arrive back in town safely. But we were greeted with the news that there was no more fuel available and it may be a month or two before the next delivery. The liquid nitrogen in our tank was also running low. Sharon and I decided not to jeopardize the fifty or so samples we had already collected and frozen. Instead we made plans to head back to the States.
Yesterday morning we went out to the airport and got stand-by tickets to fly to Ulaan Baator. That worked fine and by mid-afternoon we were back in the captial arranging a morning flight to Japan and then onto the U.S. Today we’re flying to Osaka, once again over the turbulent skies above the Gobi Desert. By this afternoon, we should be on flights to the U.S. and because of the international dateline, we can arrive in New York by evening of the same day, just in time for the 4th of July. The trip has been a successful but long one and I think we’re both looking forward to sleeping on the plane and drinking all the free fresh water they have available.