It’s hard to imagine a scenario whereby a major highway connecting Ulaan Baatar eastward to China would not disrupt gazelle migration across the Eastern Steppe. Whether or not China is actively trying to destroy Mongolia’s economy, which I doubt, I think this highway will be good for Mongolia in the long run as it will allow greater market access for Mongolian exports. Poorly managed infrastructure development, however, might prove to be more harmful than good. Beyond being nice to look at, the Mongolian gazelle is a useful source of food and income for rural Mongolians and probably deserving of protection even for only economic reasons. Furthermore, the road project has other unresolved issues that need to be addressed before work should proceed, especially the question of financing and maintenance. These issues aside, however, there are creative civil and environmental engineering solutions that could at least partially mitigate the effect of this road on the migrating animals. As I said, I’m not an expert on that sort of thing but I know highways in the United States have been modified to have a lower impact on surrounding animal populations.
I see more promising unity of development and environmental goals in the idea of local management of natural resources. The amounts of money involved in hunting Western Argali sheep were startling, most of all the zero dollars that locals get from the sale of licenses. It seems to me that transferring some management of these hunting licenses to locals would be a relatively effective way of protecting the Argali sheep. As the species is on the United States’ list of endangered species, many people think it shouldn’t be hunted at all. I disagree. With enforcement of hunting laws and quotas so poor, especially in remote rural areas, outlawing the hunting of the Argali sheep altogether would probably have little effect on the local people’s decision to hunt or not. Putting a limited number of expensive hunting licenses in their control, however, would provide an incentive to maintain a healthy population of animals for the occasional well-paying sport hunter.
The overarching problem, of course, is getting people and institutions to take responsibility for their own failures in environmental protection. This is the case worldwide, not just in Mongolia. Here, though, I see several specific examples.
First, individual people, either grossly uninformed, overwhelmed by the depth of existing problems or unimpressed with the extent of their own contribution to problems, fail to take basic steps that would help protect and beautify their environment, such as proper trash disposal. Perhaps this problem could be mitigated with better education, but I expect it would take much more than that. I imagine that to more effectively deal with this problem, the government would have to get involved with some more serious capital expenditures for things like proper waste disposal sites and better enforcement of regulations. I know the idea of new capital projects for the Mongolian government is financially troublesome but better personal waste management is going to have to be addressed sooner or later or Mongolia will start to encounter real (or worse) problems.
Second, the government itself acts like it’s co-opted by industrial interests, personal holdings or any number of anti-environmental interests. This is a problem with no easy solution but a refinement of the democratic process. We’ve been working on that for a long time in my own country. Also, perhaps I’m naively and inordinately enamored with China, but I get the feeling lots of people here like to blame China for exploitative economic practices that they themselves allow. I’m sure some of the enmity is well founded but I suspect there’s also a certain amount of bigotry at play, and as long as China can serve as a scapegoat for Mongolia’s problems there’s little incentive for Mongolians themselves to make improvements.