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An Ancient Rural Culture Deals With Wolves Halfway Around The World

MoJo columnist Rebecca Watters returns from a research mission to Mongolia where she tracked lobos,and wolverines

A wild and elusive Mongolian wolf, subspecies of the gray wolf, caught by a research camera.  Photo courtesy Ulaan Taiga Strictly Protected Areas Administration.
A wild and elusive Mongolian wolf, subspecies of the gray wolf, caught by a research camera. Photo courtesy Ulaan Taiga Strictly Protected Areas Administration.
At the beginning there was a blue-grey wolf, born
with his destiny ordained by Heaven Above.
 
 – Opening lines of theSecret History of the Mongols.Translation by I. de Rachewitz

Two animals, dark against windblown snow, picked their way from the shelter of a band of trees and out onto the plain. Tumursukh Jal, the director of the Ulaan Taiga Strictly Protected Areas Administration and one of Mongolia’s foremost conservationists, hit the brakes of the Land Rover and reached for his binoculars. 

“Wolves!” he said. 

I squinted into the November sunrise, following Tumursukh’s gaze. We were en route between the remote town of Ulaan Uul, where the protected areas’ headquarters was located, and the provincial capital, Murun. I had just emerged from months of field research in the Mongolian backcountry, working with a team of rangers and American college students. All summer and fall we’d heard wolves. We’d howled back and forth with pups, and tracked the pack down the riverbed near our base camp. We’d captured spectacular photos of the animals on cameras that we’d set up across the park. But I hadn’t seen a wolf in person for the entire field season. 

The wolf is revered in Mongolia. Chinggis Khaan (better known to the Western world as Genghis Khan) was descended from the union of a wolf and an elk, and the wolf is a potent symbol of Mongolian identity and nationhood. Wolves are Heaven’s Dogs, emissaries of Tenger, the Sky, and bearers of Tenger’s will. 

Seeing a wolf conveys good luck, boosting a person’s hiimori, or energy. An infusion of energy felt like a good prospect after the last few weeks of trekking after cameras in subzero temperatures and endless snowstorms. So I eagerly peered out towards the two specks on the horizon. 

But Tumursukh lowered the binoculars and shook his head. 

“Roe deer,” he said, “Not wolves.” Then he lifted the binoculars back to his eyes. His fascination with wildlife of all kinds had led him to a thirty-year career, first as a ranger, then as the director of Lake Huvsgul National Park, and finally as the director of the three mountainous protected areas that ringed the remote Darhad Valley in northern Mongolia.

 As Mongolia made the difficult transition from socialism to capitalist democracy in the 1990s, Tumursukh had emerged as one of the country’s strongest advocates for wildlife protection. I wasn’t surprised that he was just as attentive to the relatively common roe deer as he would have been to a rarer species. We waited as the deer approached the dirt track that served as a road, and then hesitated. One of them crossed. The other, afraid of the ruts scratched across the landscape, bolted back towards the trees. 

Tumursukh started the Land Rover, and we lurched onward. After a few minutes I asked, “What would you have done, if they’d been wolves?”
The steppe of Mongolia has been likened to high, open and treeless country of Montana and Wyoming. Herders there confront the same wildlife predator issues that their counterparts in the American do. And wolves are killed to protect livestock and in hunts. Still, cultural attitudes are different, Watters say, and people are shocked to learn that in America wolves were targeted for annihilation. Photo courtesy
The steppe of Mongolia has been likened to high, open and treeless country of Montana and Wyoming. Herders there confront the same wildlife predator issues that their counterparts in the American do. And wolves are killed to protect livestock and in hunts. Still, cultural attitudes are different, Watters say, and people are shocked to learn that in America wolves were targeted for annihilation. Photo courtesy
I knew the answer, because I’d seen him put the rifle into the back seat when we left park headquarters in the early morning darkness. I wanted to hear him say it anyway. 

He grinned.

“I would have shot them, of course.”
"If you see a wolf, your destiny is as great as the wolf’s, but if you kill a wolf, your destiny is greater." – Mongolian proverb
Nothing confuses Americans in Mongolia as much as the Mongolian relationship with the wolf. Almost every American conservationist I’ve worked with in Mongolia has stated that they believe that Mongolians hate wolves. When I ask for evidence, they say that they’ve heard herders talking about wolves attacking livestock, or saying that wolves make life hard. 

In 18 years of working in Mongolia, I’ve heard those stories too. Ten of those years have overlapped with my time in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, where no animal is more polarizing than the wolf. It’s easy to map our own conflicts onto a situation that seems similar: herders, livestock, predators. But that reading is far too simplistic.  

Mongolian herders do invariably talk about wolf depredation on livestock. They invariably discuss how hard they have to work to protect their herds. They invariably mention that wolves are strong, and smart, and powerful. And they invariably react with horror and pity when I explain that we wiped out our entire wolf population. Usually the response is something along the lines of Why would you do something so stupid

The wolf has been featured on Mongolian postage stamps. Image courtesy Susan Fox
The wolf has been featured on Mongolian postage stamps. Image courtesy Susan Fox
Mongolians classify wolves as a “good” animal, in contrast, for example, to lynx, which are often referred to as “bad,” “ugly,” or “spooky.” The wolf is good because it is a symbol of the nation. It’s good because it herds with the herders, taking out the weakest livestock and wild ungulates, improving the quality of the herds. It’s good because it’s a Robin Hood figure, said to take disproportionately from those richer in livestock, reinforcing values of social equality. It’s good because it’s a conduit between the Sky, which is powerful but remote, and humans. 
Nothing confuses Americans in Mongolia as much as the Mongolian relationship with the wolf. Almost every American conservationist I’ve worked with in Mongolia has stated that they believe that Mongolians hate wolves.
And the wolf is good, to some extent, because it’s a worthy adversary. Talking about wolf depredation on your herds, or how hard you have to work to keep your livestock safe, is not just a complaint about wolves. It’s a sideways way of invoking your own skill. In a landscape devoid of wolves, there is no such thing as a real herder, a real Mongolian, a real warrior, or a real man. Living without wolves is cheating. 

Wolves are good in Mongolia, but there is no romanticizing the relationship. There is killing on both sides. Wolves take livestock, and humans hunt wolves. During the socialist era, from 1921 to 1991, Mongolia exported thousands of wolf pelts each year to Russia as part of a program to control predators. That effort did nothing to boost livestock production, and state-mandated hunting programs were eliminated under democracy. Herders still shoot wolves, for hiimoriand status and to protect livestock. But by tradition, when a wolf first takes an animal, it’s seen as a blessing, an offering to the ecosystem that supports the herders. It’s only if the wolf pack takes additional animals that the herder will hunt the wolf. 

So wolves must kill livestock, and humans must kill wolves, and wolves must persist. If reverence for wolves doesn’t result in absolute protection of every individual wolf, it still prevents the kind of distorting vitriolic hatred, the ecocidal mania against predators, that we see here. And it forbids the impossible and idealistic notion, also present here, that nothing need ever die for us to live. 

None of this is easy for an American conservationist to contemplate, let alone comprehend. We are schooled in different realities. 
"Here are the names we give to the wolf to show respect: Father of the Mountains, Sable-Tail, Frost-Mouth, the Wanderer, the Stalker, Wearer of Fancy Boots, the Rambler, Takes-Livestock-From-the-Rich." T. Battogtokh, ranger. (translation by author) 
When I arrived in Mongolia as a Peace Corps volunteer in 2000, I carried with me the legacy of Europeans’ rapacious spread across the North American continent, a memory of catastrophic loss and destruction. The world I lived in was inhabited by people who wanted to protect what remained, and people who wanted to continue to destroy it. This binary was a fact of life; in the middle there were, perhaps, people who were indifferent to the natural world, but no one who saw humans as a truly integral part of the ecosystem. 

In those early years of my time in Mongolia, wolf hunting made me uneasy. My Mongolian friends’ enthusiasm for wolves seemed so deeply at odds with their willingness to kill them. Where I came from, predator killing was tied to a set of values that none of my Mongolian friends espoused. Finding the space to accommodate two things that seemed so contradictory was the work of many years. 

In 2014, I worked with a ranger named Magsar. Like all of the rangers, he was also a herder. Before our two-week excursion to set up cameras for snow leopards, I watched him and his son work with their horses at their remote summer encampment. I admired his yaks and their adorable calves, and helped his wife gather their sheep and goats for milking in the morning and evening. 
A rainbow highlights the skyline of Horidol Saridag with Delger Khan, the tall peak, towering in the background. This was one of the valleys that served as Watters' carnivore study areas. Photo courtesy Rebecca Watters
A rainbow highlights the skyline of Horidol Saridag with Delger Khan, the tall peak, towering in the background. This was one of the valleys that served as Watters' carnivore study areas. Photo courtesy Rebecca Watters
Up in the mountains, in camp each evening, Magsar pulled out a newspaper and read the articles, commenting on how a feature on Gabriel Garcia Marquez reminded him of how much he had enjoyed One Hundred Years of Solitude, or discussing a piece on Hillary Clinton’s policy agenda, before tearing the paper into strips and rolling cigarettes. He smoked these cigarettes with ravenous addiction but also regret, lamenting his inability to give up such a terrible habit. 

Despite the smoking, Magsar was indefatigable on the slopes. Over and over again, we forded roiling rivers, or ascended steep cliffs and precarious talus fields, to reach a camera site. We watched an entire mountainside avalanche one valley over, snow, ice, and rock peeling away in a terrible roar, as we stood on a similarly steep slope, hoping that the route we’d chosen was safe. On one high ridge, we got zapped by a ground charge as a storm rolled in at high speed, and had to crouch among the talus while a snow-laden thunderstorm raged around us. 

When we returned to his summer camp, Magsar dug through one of the family’s chests and handed me a shagai, the ankle bone of a wolf. Wolf shagai are usually carried by men, and usually to insure safe travels. A wolf, Magsar explained, is an animal that travels widely, and adeptly, in the backcountry. A courageous animal, undaunted by danger and clever at getting out of trouble. Earlier that summer, he’d shot the wolf whose ankle bone rested in my palm, and he felt I deserved the shagaiafter our adventures in the mountains. It was understood that I would never shoot a wolf myself, but I probably needed the luck, and he was gifting me some of his. 

Sitting there with the shagaiin my hand, I felt grief for the wolf, and I felt the profound honor of the gift. 
"If a wolf kills livestock, it does so because it’s acting on its instinct, its destiny, which was given to it by nature… A wolf can do no wrong."  —T.T. Naranhuu, in Mongolian Wolves, (translation by author)
In the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the wolf is a lit match dropped into the dry tinder of a cultural conflict that extends far beyond the species itself. You cannot be neutral about the wolf, let alone attempt to forge a different relationship with the animal. Try it, and people will push back equally hard with the orthodoxies and dogmas of their positions. 

It’s difficult to even suggest that love and reverence might, somewhere on earth, coexist with a wolf hunting. American wolf luminaries will tell you, disregarding your fluency in Mongolian, that you must have misunderstood, that Mongolians, as a herding people, must hate wolves. 

Conservationists in the Greater Yellowstone who hunt to feed their families will vehemently insist that shooting a wolf can only be done out of hate, even while thanking the bull elk they’ve just brought down for the gift he’s given them. Environmentalists will call you a traitor for conceding that in some circumstances, hunting wolves may be sustainable. Virulently anti-wolf individuals will assume that your qualified concession on wolf hunting means that you agree with their entire approach‚anti-government paranoia, hatred for the animal, and all. That space between the grief and the gift doesn’t exist in Greater Yellowstone. You cannot inhabit it, at least not publicly, because it is an alternate dimension. 

Finding a way to see and accept the multi-dimensionality of the wolf is the challenge that we face in the US as we talk about what it means to coexist. The wolf is an animal that affords the opportunity to raise your skill level as a herder. It asks you to accept that living on the land requires an occasional sacrifice in gratitude for the blessings that nature gives. It carries power. It crosses a line from beauty to burden and back. It asks you to understand that there is reciprocity between people and nature, a constant give and take, a state where there is neither dominion nor subjugation, only relationship. 

How many of us are capable of living across this spectrum of understanding? 

Not many. Not yet. 

The sight of a wolf transforms the human spirit. –T.T. Naranhuu, Mongolian Wolves. Translation by author.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Thank you to B. Dovchin for consultation on Mongolian grammar and Darhad dialect questions




Rebecca Watters
About Rebecca Watters

Rebecca Watters is a wildlife biologist, research associate with the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative in Jackson, Wyoming and executive director of The Wolverine Foundation based in Bozeman, Montana.
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