Mongolia Wildlife

Shantini Ramakrishnan, Conservation & Restoration Education Program Manager for the New Mexico Forest and Watershed Restoration Institute discusses restoration projects with visitors from Mongolia and staff of the Denver Zoo in February 2022.

Some 6,500 miles and an ocean separate the Rio Mora National Wildlife Refuge in northern New Mexico and Mongolia’s Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve, known as Ikh Nart. But both are working to restore grasslands and foster better wildlife habitat despite the challenges of a changing climate. 

Staff with the New Mexico Forest and Watershed Restoration Institute (FWRI) have joined in a years-long effort between the Rio Mora refuge, the Denver Zoo and Ikh Nart to share restoration ideas and projects. 

“Grassland degradation in Mongolia as a result of overgrazing and climate change is a major threat to the persistence of globally important wildlife species and natural resources needed to support nomadic herding families at Ikh Nart,” said Ganchimeg J. Wingard, Mongolia Program Director at the Denver Zoological Foundation. “Wild animals are lacking drinking water due to no-snow winters, severe summer flash flooding and erosion, and low vegetation growth due to harsh weather conditions. Without intervention, natural water sources at Ikh Nart will continue to be damaged, and/or destroyed.”

Those are similar to the challenges northern New Mexico faces in restoring landscapes. In February, two Mongolian professionals visited the Rio Mora National Wildlife Refuge with staff from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge, the zoo, and the institute to examine some of the projects underway to reduce erosion, slow down flashfloods and restore native vegetation.

“Climate adaptation challenges crosses boundaries and cultures, and approaches in one semi-arid environment may be relevant to another,” said Shantini Ramakrishnan, FWRI’s Conservation and Restoration Education Program manager, who explained some of the water erosion projects at Rio Mora to the visitors and has worked with herders at Ikh Nart. “Our interest in conserving and retaining water on the landscape connects our programs. Ikh Nart Nature Preserve is even drier than northern New Mexico and collaborating with Mongolian researchers and land managers provides useful perspectives on their adaptations to an ever-drying climate.” 

“This relationship is important because it demonstrates the common issues communities face, even though they are half a world away from each other. It also provides a two-way exchange of knowledge,” said Joe Zebrowski, FWRI’s Special Programs manager. Zebrowski, who was part of the Rio Mora tour, has been invited twice to Ikh Nart to work on projects. 

The Denver Zoo has worked since 1996 with Mongolian experts and communities near the Ikh Nart preserve. The Denver Zoological Foundation has supported an exchange of professionals a decade, most recently with a grant from the Trust for Mutual Understanding. The grant “facilitates the travel of a variety of professionals from Mongolia to learn about a holistic program centered on wildlife conservation biology, wildlife veterinary medicine, conservation outreach and education, cultural resource preservation and conservation, and protected areas management initiatives,” said Wingard. 

Wingard added that the professional exchanges “have resulted in strong collaboration, effective cooperation, mutual respect, and noteworthy conservation successes.”

Rentsen Oyunbat, Ikh Nart researcher and executive director of the Mongolian Conservation Initiative, and Munkhjargal Luvsangenden, Chairwoman of the Citizens’ Representative Assembly of Airag Soum, the county which encompasses Ikh Nart, said they enjoyed the visit to the Rio Mora National Wildlife Refuge. 

“My goal when I go back to Mongolia to my area is to implement the activities we learned here,” said Munkhjargal.

Zebrowski, who is a Geographic Information System (GIS) analyst, was invited to Mongolia under the Denver Zoo program in 2017 and 2018 to help with GIS training and developing maps, like work he had done with the Rio Mora refuge. He is helping Mongolian professionals map vegetation plots, monitor wildlife, map springs, and launch a GIS database to track research sites on the Ikh Nart reserve. Some of the wildlife he is helping track through GPS collars are Argali sheep, ibex, Mongolian gazelle and goitered gazelle.

New Mexico Highlands University students have utilized the Ikh Nart data for class projects and one graduate student is writing her thesis on Mongolian Gazelle habitat. 

Zebrowski also is helping the reserve staff study Cinereous vulture nests. “Cinereous vultures are among the world’s largest flying birds, with a wingspan that can exceed nine feet. They have an important nesting site at Ikh Nart Nature Reserve and are considered near threatened in the wild according to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red list,” he said.

He said he hopes to continue working on projects at Ikh Nart. “I learned that though our cultures are very different, we share the same appreciation for nature and desire to protect and manage our lands for future generations,” he said. “I was also introduced to the vibrant and very interesting culture of Mongolia.”

The relationship between staff at Ikh Nart, Denver Zoo, FWRI and the Rio Mora National Wildlife Refuge is an example of how shared interests in healthy landscapes and helping wildlife can bring people together from a world apart.


The New Mexico Forest and Watershed Restoration Institute is one of three research institutes in the Southwest established by Congress in 2004. FWRI provides technical assistance in GIS mapping, vegetation treatment and monitoring, conservation education and collaboration to communities, land managers and governments around New Mexico.

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