Mongolia: tough decisions about the world's oldest nature reserve

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Bogd Khan Uul Strictly Protected Area (SPA) (41,651 ha) is located on the edge of Mongolia's capital city, Ulaanbaatar, and dominates the views to the south. It is the oldest continuously protected area in Mongolia and possibly the world, being first established in 1778. Its establishment preceded by almost 100 years that of Yellowstone National Park in the United States. There is evidence the area held informal protective status as early as the 12th century. Bogd Khan Uul holds significant historical and cultural importance (pdf) for the people of Mongolia. In 1995, Bogd Khan Uul was formally designated a 'Strictly Protected Area' in accordance with current Mongolian law. Bogd Khan Uul was further recognized for its ecological importance when it was awarded UNESCO Biosphere Reserve status in 1997.

Hover over "Notes" for photo information.

So, if one were going to undertake a conservation project focusing on forests in the central part of Mongolia, one would reckon on including it, right? Wrong.

We have been designing an interesting forest project combining work on community-based exploitation and conservation. The forest area chosen was roughly the blocks of forest in a wide 'V' north of Ulaanbaatar up to the border with Russia, and the initial proposal was approved for funding by the Global Environment Facility. It was most exciting for the potential of linking some of the protected areas within the project scope with 'biological corridors' about which we had earlier commissioned an interesting report (pdf). Such linkages are vital as an adaptation measure to climate change (pdf) to allow species to move into new ranges. Notably it would have connected Hustai National Park with Bogd Khan, and Bogd Khan with the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park and the vast Khan Khentii SPA to the north. 

Apart from the ruins of Manzhir Monastery, other long-established buildings in the SPA are the President's Palace Complex, the Nukht Hotel – used for government workshops and the like – a youth prison, and the Observatory. About six years ago things started to change. Ger camps on the reserve's slopes became visible from Ulaanbaatar, and some very nice private homes appeared in the Nukht Valley just off the road to the airport and through a guarded gate to the SPA. Over the years the numbers of houses have increased, the Zaisan Valley has become simply an extension of Ulaanbaatar's urban sprawl, and tourism facilities have multiplied such that every valley and periphery is now committed to some form of development. In 2008 the ground was broken for Mongolia's first ski resort on the NE slopes.

This all became rather a problem for us. The Global Environment Facility (GEF) expects the money it contributes to conservation projects to be used to support 'globally significant biodiversity'. Could we really, hand on heart, swear that Bogd Khan Uul was – or could be – any longer an important conservation site? Perhaps if the money accruing from the sale of the land inside this Strictly Protected Area had gone into conservation management and the sales were all part of a broadly consulted management plan it might have been different. Sadly, after consulting with the government we dropped Bogd Khan Uul from the project preparation. 

Since the decision was taken just after Christmas, the project has run into further difficulties. Mongolia's financial crisis has been precipitated by the dramatic fall in copper prices which so determine the financial health of Mongolia. As a result the IMF and the major donors in Mongolia have devised a package with the Ministry of Finance collectively amounting to some hundreds of millions of dollars. From the World Bank's side, the allocation of money to Mongolia has not increased but rather the investment projects are either being put on ice or dropped. The Forest Landscapes project to which the GEF project had to be linked is in the former category for now but it is highly unlikely to be taken out of the freezer until mid-2011, if then. Under the rules of the GEF this is beyond the period within which the provisional allocation of funds remains available, and so the conservation project has to be dropped. We'll see if we might be able to reduce its size and scope and resurrect it as a 'medium-sized project' but there may be procedural problems with that.

We'll keep trying because it's worth it, we have good partners, and there's too much work to be done to give up and sit on our hands.


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