Dinosaurs, Petroglyphs, Small Grants, and Ancient Sheep

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The author testing to see if this pebble is indeed a fossil bone

One of my most profound biodiversity ‘wow’ moments as a teenager was seeing the arms of the Mongolian Deinocheirus (‘Terrible hands’) dinosaur emerging from a wall of the London Natural History Museum. The arms are basically all that is known of this awesome species but it has been estimated that, were the whole beast to appear from behind the wall, it would be 3.5 m at the hip and weigh 9 tons, dwarfing almost everything else with which it lived. The arms are 2.6 m long from shoulder to claw tip and the three, cruelly-hooked, razor-sharp claws are about 25 cm long. Compare this with the horror beast of Jurassic Park  – Tyrannosaurus rex. Its arms were a puny one meter long with claws barely reaching 10 cm.

Having never seen dinosaur fossils in situ it was a thrill last week to visit the Flaming Cliffs or Bayanzag in South Gobi. This is the site made famous in the mid 1920s by the flamboyant Roy Chapman Andrews who was supposedly the larger-than-life model for the latter-day Indiana Jones movie character. It was at this site that he discovered not just a great many dinosaur and early mammal fossils, but the first incontrovertible evidence of dinosaur eggs in nests and the first fossilized dinosaur embryos.

The herders in this seriously dry area have organized themselves into a cooperative and this year were successful in winning one of our world famous (in Mongolia) NEMO Small Grants. This is managed by the Open Society Forum (OSF) under the management supervision of the Ministry of Nature, Environment and Tourism. OSF advertizes these Small Grants so well that people in the remotest communities across the country get to hear about them and are encouraged to apply. The herders' cooperative has brought order and safety to the chaotic parking on the cliff edge, started to collect and account for visitor fees, regularly cleared this local protected area of trash, established two small ger museums, and rationalized the sale of handicrafts by their members. The group showed us around the site, showing us how to tell a fossil bone from a pebble (it sticks to your tongue), a dinosaur leg bone, a jaw, and some wonderfully flavorful tomatoes and melons.

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The Small Grants Program was a somewhat contentious idea when we raised it five years ago as part of the first phase of NEMO. Since 2006, 2024 proposals have been received and 184 grants given. The Program has been somewhat a victim of its own success and for this year’s tranche some 700 proposals were sent in (both the quality and the quantity increase each year) but the beleaguered selection committee didn’t stint on the advice and feedback they gave to the applicants. 

Small grants are fun. They get money into the hands of small local NGOs and other groups. They cover a range of fascinating community priorities. The government uses them to demonstrate (or not) the validity and efficacy of their policy decisions. A new presentation on the coverage and impact of the four years of grant giving has just been posted.

Yet another ‘wow’ moment occured during the same trip when we visited one of Mongolia’s amazing petroglyph sites. On a largely bare hillside in the middle of the Gobi some of the dark rocks have been ‘pecked’ to make images of people and animals such as ibex, wild sheep, horses and large birds, likely vultures. It is not clear how old they are but they were likely made at least 3,000-5,000 years ago. In some locations one can find similar groups of drawings which include woolly rhinoceros and perhaps ostrich which have not inhabited Mongolia for probably 10,000 years.

One of the best places to see wild sheep, or argali, is Ikh Nart Nature Reserve in the eastern Gobi which happens to be another small grant site (2006 tranche) which I visited a few days before seeing dinosaur fossils and the petroglyphs. It’s really good to see that a great deal was accomplished - and especially that the improvements have been sustained.  There is a management plan being implemented, a ranger corps with trained rangers, community outreach and involvement, and ecotourism. The solid advances led to it being chosen by UNDP as one of their sites in a new GEF project (pdf) and the Earthwatch Institute adopting it as one of their sites for visiting volunteers. 

Early one morning we went out into the maze of rocky hills around the main camp at Ikh Nart. With the sun still low and weakly golden we saw a group of three argali sheep standing still on the skyline spying on us. The petroglyphs of the same wonderful animals gave me a deep connection into the past, not as far back as the dinosaurs whose bones I’d been putting on my tongue, but still something which was somehow very basic and human.


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