An immense grassland in Mongolia – an area likened to the long-gone prairies of the American West, complete with staggering migrations of hundreds of thousands of animals – is threatened by a proposal to build a road through its center, according to scientists with the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society.
The road proposal is part of the "Millennium Highway," which plans to connect Mongolia to China and the Russian Far East. The current version of the plan calls for de-gazetteing all or parts of several protected areas on Mongolia's eastern steppes, home to the Mongolian gazelle, which perhaps number over a million individuals, along with other wildlife. Scientists say that the gazelle migration across the Eastern Steppes is the last great gathering of large hoofed mammals in Asia, similar to migrations of wildebeest in Africa's Serengeti, and North America's caribou.
"This is the largest intact grazing ecosystem left on the planet, home to Asia's last great spectacle of migrating hoofed animals," said Dr. George Schaller, a Wildlife Conservation Society biologist, who has worked in Mongolia since 1989. "This proposal would disrupt the migrations and could destroy the gazelles' calving grounds."
For the past several years, Schaller, along with WCS researcher Kirk Olson, has tracked gazelle movements across the vast Eastern Steppe. According to Schaller, an alternate proposal would direct the road north of one of the key protected areas, into a region not used by gazelles – a plan already looked upon favorably by the Asian Development Bank. However, others in China and Mongolia prefer that the road cut through the heart of the steppe and the gazelles' range to connect with an already existing road in China. This would require the elimination of a portion of Nomrog Strictly Protected Area (SPA).
There are also plans to de-gazette other protected areas for mineral and oil development on the Eastern Steppe. "We appreciate the need for the people of Mongolia to develop their country and seek economic prosperity," said Schaller. "If development proceeds with foresight and concern for the environment, both people and wildlife can prosper and Mongolia can retain its natural heritage for future generations."
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