Wednesday, February 24, 2016
Your dog may be able to catch a Frisbee, but can it preserve an ageless culture in the wilds of Mongolia? Scientists at the Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project, a small NGO operating in Mongolia, hope the dogs they’re raising can do just that.
The MBDP breeds and raises Bankhar, a primal canine landrace, to once again serve as livestock guardian dogs for nomadic herders across the rugged landscape of north-central Asia. This nomadic lifestyle, along with the Bankhar, was nearly wiped out during Mongolia’s decades as a Soviet satellite state, when the ruling communist party sought to modernize and industrialize Mongolia and suppressed nomadism. At the same time, Bankhar fur became popular material for coats fashionable in Moscow, further reducing the dog’s population.
The benefits of supplying Bankhar dogs to locals appear to be twofold: The herders won’t lose livestock to predators, and the predators—some endangered—won’t lose their lives. Without livestock-guarding dogs, the herders often gun down or poison the wolves, snow leopards, brown bears, foxes and eagles that hunt a herder’s sheep, goats and horses.
However, there is also a third benefit: the preservation of the long-held tradition of nomadic herding in Mongolia.
“About a third of the Mongolian population still lives as herders, and predation can result in herders losing up to 40 percent of their annual income,” says Greg Goodfellow ’12, a project scientist with MBDP.
Goodfellow joined the organization after hearing about a 2015 TEDx Connecticut College talk by MBDP founder Bruce Elfström. Goodfellow majored in biology, but says his professional path has also been affected by his minor in philosophy.
“I’ve always been curious about what it means to ‘live a good life,’” Goodfellow says.
“For me, in addition to doing what makes you happy, a ‘good life’ also entails trying to make an impact greater than yourself. This is one of the things that drew me to conservation biology—there are ample opportunities to improve life for both nonhuman animals and humans because conservation issues often involve both.”
That’s certainly evident in Mongolia, where even a single predator like a snow leopard can kill nearly half of a herder’s flock over the course of a season. That’s a huge loss for a herding family making an average of $3 a day.
“For those with small herds, this can be the difference between continuing a lifestyle that has been passed down through generations and having to move to the capital, Ulaanbaatar, where job opportunities are few and far between,” Goodfellow says.
Elfström founded MBDP after visiting Mongolia to shoot an IMAX movie about the country as part of his for-profit work. He is the owner of Overland Experts, an adventure travel company based in East Haddam, Connecticut. As he and his crew traveled across Mongolia on a preproduction visit, they stayed with nomadic families living in yurts, called “gers,” on the grasslands. One night, his host family lost 17 horses and as many sheep and goats to wolves, a significant hit to their herd.
This prompted Elfström, a biologist by training, to research ways to protect these herds. He found evidence that showed the use of guardian dogs reduces livestock loss by 80 to 100 percent. Further research led him to the Bankhar. Elders among the nomads remembered the dogs—whose name they translated to “flat face”—and gave their support to Elfström’s idea to grow the Bankhar population and place them with herding families at no cost.
“It’s a very Mongolian solution to a Mongolian problem, based on Mongolian traditions,” Elfström says.
Bankhar is not a breed of dog developed by people. Instead, it’s a race of dogs that coevolved with humans.
Coevolution alongside human beings is an important distinction. On expeditions across the scarred landscapes of Mongolia to seek out the Bankhar that would produce MBDP’s first litter of livestock guardians, the NGO conducted DNA testing on the dogs they found to ensure there were no genetic ties amongst the animals or to modern breeds.
Disruption comes into play if an attack is underway. The dog will work to break the intense focus, or tunnel vision, of a hungry predator. Confrontation is the last resort for the dogs, who are similar in size to familiar breeds like the Great Pyrenees or Newfoundland.
“If need be, they get physical,” says Elfström of the dog’s innate protectiveness. “But that’s atypical, and that’s the beauty of it. It’s nonlethal and nonviolent predator control most of the time.”
“DNA testing was essential to avoid inbreeding and modern ailments like hip dysplasia. And if a dog’s skills as guardians are based on genetics, we didn’t want to compromise them,” Elfström says.
Evolution is better than bred in terms of a dog’s guardian abilities.
As guardians, Bankhars reduce predation in three ways: territorial exclusion, disruption and confrontation. Exclusion is simply their presence, scent and noise, which will dissuade predators from approaching a herd.
A Bankhar’s main trait is independence. These dogs spend their time primarily with livestock—not people—and must know how to react on their own when predators approach. Bankhar can appear low-energy, but they are hypervigilant, and spring to action at the first sign of trouble.
“Dogs are essential [to our livelihood],” says Batbold Bayasgalan, a local herder who has
lost several sheep and may receive a pup from MBDP’s next litter of Bankhar.
“Dogs will alert you to everything. I heard a Mongolian Bankhar dog can even take on a wolf.”
The dogs are willing to take on predators because they have bonded with the livestock they are protecting. MBDP follows the traditional practice of placing the Bankhar with livestock from day one. The group collaborated with two national parks and the Snow Leopard Trust to secure land in three different areas of Mongolia on which they built large kennels. Each dog lives in its own enclosure with a flock of sheep. Elfström says the bonding works much like it does between humans and their household canine companions: The dog is submissive to the humans, but will protect them.
Unlike those relationships, however, the herders are discouraged from lavishing too much attention on their Bankhar in order to keep the dogs’ focus on the livestock.
“We want them to treat the dogs like employees,” says Elfström. “The herders aren’t cruel to them. Culturally, dogs are very important—they are the only animals given names by the herders and the only animals they bury at death. But they can’t treat them like we treat our pets or the dogs will bond to the herders instead of the livestock.
“The goal is: Don’t make yourself more interesting than the sheep.”
Where goats don't roam
As project scientist at MBDP, Goodfellow takes on numerous responsibilities, among them inspecting and supplying the training facilities, writing grant applications, building outreach programs to educate the local communities, analyzing data to outline the effectiveness of MBDP and its puppy-raising protocol, and analyzing the data for publication in academic journals.
This work has already been included in one study out of Cornell University, which used MBDP data to prove dogs were first domesticated in Central Asia some 40,000 years ago.
MBDP plans to continue contributing research about the origin of domestic dogs and looking into the genetic history of the Bankhar in order to determine, for example, if protecting livestock is inherent in their genes or learned behavior.
In addition to this research, Goodfellow speculates that the NGO’s work might also improve the environment by lessening herders’ reliance on goats.
Nomads historically maintained multiple herds of different animals, including sheep, goats, horses, camels and yaks. But an overreliance on the high-profit cashmere goat has led many Mongolians to drop other types of livestock in favor of dense herds of goats. This has had a detrimental effect on the Mongolian ecosystem, particularly because cashmere goats are very destructive to the landscape, as are dense herds of any animal.
Herders who receive a Bankhar from MBDP will be offered incentives to diversify their herds. The organization is working with other conservation groups to develop markets for alternative wools and other products that would allow herders to see increased income from more diverse and smaller flocks.
“Our aim is to provide herders with Bankhar that will successfully reduce predation of domestic livestock, which we think might also have cascading effects, such as allowing herders to keep smaller herd sizes,” Goodfellow says.
This could then reduce their propensity to overgraze, which impacts the rate of desertification and may have some link to climate change.
“Of course, these are all just speculation right now,” he adds. “We don’t have any data suggesting that our dogs are leading to these other, larger-scale changes. But it’s certainly part of our mission to make a broader impact than just reducing predation.”
MBDP’s goals go beyond just science. Goodfellow and Elfström say the plan is to hand the reins to the nomadic herding community so they can breed and share Bankhar with one another—just as their ancestors have done for generations.