Wölfe in der Mongolei/Wolves in Mongolia (I): Introduction

When I visited a community of Tuva pastoralists near Dsaamar, about 150 kilometres north-west of the Mongolian capital Ulaan Baator, wolves had killed a lamb the night before. Everybody was still nervous and feared further attacks. Therefore, several men had placed empty oil barrels around the community land which were meant to resemble humans on guard. Older children and teenagers slept outside on the pastures surrounding the tents, ready to scare away any wolves that might appear (the Tuva believe that wolves attack adults only and will not harm young people), and the dogs barked into the darkness all night long – running up and down, protecting the pastoralists‘ animals from a threat I could not see in the pitch dark. It was the first night I slept in the steppe under the stars. And it was a disturbing feeling to know that wolves were somewhere out there, not knowing when or even if they would attack. I do not know how I managed to fall asleep, wondering if the Tuva’s tales of man-eating wolves are true or not… (fieldwork diary, 12 August 2002).


Although the situation pictured above was perhaps more disturbing for me than for the Tuva, the general atmosphere described is a common feature of pastoralist life whenever they expect wolf attacks on their animals or have just experienced one. Although wolves are in general responsible for the loss of one to five animals only, a small percentage of the total number of fallen stock per year[i], every single animal is valuable and such loss can be critical when numbers are depleted in harsh winters. Due to the Tuva pastoralists‘ involvement in animal husbandry, one would expect them to see wolves as their natural enemies.

This article is based on ethnographic fieldwork among the Tuva in the Bayan-Ölgii-Aimag (western Mongolia) in summer 2002. I was introduced to their community as a friend of the family by my Tuvan friend Galtai Galsan, which gave me easy access to close and distant relatives. In the course of the fieldwork, I interviewed 15 individuals, among them mainly elders, two shamans and two wolf hunters. The interviews lasted 45 to 90 minutes and were tape-recorded. Galtai acted as interpreter while I jotted down key issues and terms. Later in the day, these jottings were elaborated into a fieldwork journal. I discussed the resulting notes with other pastoralists who lived nearby and checked the information with Galtai during the whole course of the fieldwork and writing-up process. I also compared the information I received with my own observations. As wolf encounters are rare, these observations were limited to watching people use wolf body parts as talismans and medicine, interact with a wolf kept in captivity and prepare for a wolf attack.

 The Setting

The Mongolian Tuva are an ethnic group of about 4,000 people living in the region around Dsaamar and in the Altai mountains of the Bayan-Ölgii-Aimag, Khovd-Aimag and Khövsgöl-Aimag (see Mongush, 2003). They are semi-nomadic pastoralists specializing in herding horses, sheep, goats, yaks, cows and camels. Accordingly, most of their life focuses on these animals. Horses and camels are needed for transport. In addition, camels are held for their high quality wool, as are sheep. The Tuva further process and use various milk products gained from milking horses, sheep and goats. The products include milk, yoghurt, quark and airag (fermented mare’s milk). As the pastoralists‘ main task is to care for their animals, their nomadic way of life is highly influenced by a need for pastures, which are switched every few months. Furthermore, the climatic conditions demand that they find shelter against the cold winds at the beginning of winter.

Most of the time, they place their ger (Mongolian term for yurt, a Russian word meaning a large round tent) within an ail (community of pastoralists) which can consists of up to 10, but more usually about five ger with their respective families. In the past, these communities were formed mostly of related families. Today, however, they may include un-related families. Within the ail, herding work is distributed, usually amongst men. The ail thus represents the core of Tuva social life, offering opportunities for men and women alike to be in company, discuss matters, let children play together, and so on (see Bruun and Odgaard, 1996). This is the setting in which people hear stories and anecdotes about wolves, and where most wolf encounters take place.

Wolves are so present in the Tuva’s lives because Mongolia has one of the largest wolf populations in the world. Estimations range between 10,000 and 80,000 animals. However, they tend to live in the remote parts of the steppe, the mountains or the forests, hiding from human sight most of the time. Therefore, encounters between wolves and humans are rare and are mainly limited to hunting situations (both humans hunting wolves and wolves hunting domestic animals or humans), interacting with wolves kept in captivity, or wolf body parts used as talismans or medicines. It is the Tuva’s way of life, i.e. pastoralism, that causes these variations of human-wolf interactions to be the most probable. From both perspectives, the humans‘ and the wolves‘, domestic animals are at the centre of interest. Both rely on them for food, although in different ways. The pastoralists‘ task is to herd and protect their animals. The wolves, by contrast, are like invaders or thieves (so the Tuva say) who find in the pastoralists‘ animals the only source of food besides small mammals like marmots. It is in this setting of persistent struggle against wolves and harsh climatic conditions that the Tuva’s representations of wolves are shaped and discovered in many distinct encounters.

[i] Detailed numbers are available from, for example, the Mongolian national park Gurvan Saikhan. The percentage of livestock killed by wolves there was 2.3% between 2000 and 2001, compared to 1.5% in Kazakhstan, 1.6% in Siberia and 2.2% in the Volga region (Khuukhenduu and Bidbayasakh 2001).

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