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Saving East Asia’s Last Dalmatian Pelicans

By understanding the culture and traditions of Mongolia, conservationists have developed targeted outreach in the hopes of saving one of the rarest birds along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway.

By Bayarmaa Chuluunbat

At the end of the Dalmatian Pelican breeding season in 2006, a researcher was searching along the shores of Lake Airag in western Mongolia for signs of the birds, when he happened upon the carcass of a young pelican. According to a report in Birding Asia from the following year, “the head of this bird had been chopped off and was missing.” While we can’t be certain what happened to this pelican in its final moments, or what happened to its severed head, we can take a good guess. Hunting remains a major threat to this magnificent migratory bird in Mongolia.

Dalmatian pelicans are the largest and rarest water bird in Mongolia and East Asia. The population of this species in East Asia consists of less than 150 individuals that nest only in the western part of Mongolia and spend the winter in the coastal areas of eastern China. Poaching, climate change and associated habitat degradation all contribute to the decline of the Dalmatian Pelican population in East Asia. In addition, the birds that nest along the Khar-Us Lake islands face threats from herders that mow the vegetation and graze their livestock on the land in the winter, causing further habitat degradation. The Wildlife Science and Conservation Center (WSCC) has been organizing various outreach and research activities, as well as meetings with the aim to improve the protection of Dalmatian pelicans that breed and summer in Mongolia.

Putting an end to poaching with the Federation of Mongolia Horse Racing Sport and Trainers

The use of pelican beaks to make horse sweat scrapers is another major factor driving the Dalmatian Pelican’s population to the brink of extinction. It is a long-held belief that brushing your horse with these combs helps them to perform better and faster in races. However, the hunting of these birds for the use of their beaks has caused undue harm to the pelican population in Mongolia. Since 2014, WSCC researchers have collected information on the sale and purchase of Dalmatian pelican beaks on social media, Facebook groups, and classifieds sites. According to this information, since 2014 there has been more than 150 ads published with offers to buy and sell Dalmatian pelican beaks, showing us that this threat remains pervasive.

To combat this threat, we turned to the organizations with the most influence. The Federation of Mongolia Horse Racing Sport and Trainers is a sports association with many years of history and experience managing and organizing horse races across all provinces and regions in Mongolia. We reached out to them and asked for their help in our conservation activities. After a meeting with the leader of the association, they agreed to help us spread the word to discourage horsemen from using pelican beaks.

We have also collaborated with the General Department of Border Protection, the Ecological Police, and the Department of Professional Inspection to stop the illegal pelican beak trade, from the possession of beaks, importing of them, and the dissemination of information about illegal beaks on social networks.

Collaborating with the Buddhist protectors of all living beings

In Mongolia, 60% of people over the age of 15 follow a religion. More than 90% of them follow the religion of God. Therefore, in our country, one of the most effective outreach methods is to call for nature conservation work through the head of the religion that most of the population worships. We are currently working with the Mongolian Buddhist Association, which is the main association of Buddhism devotees and monasteries in Mongolia. We jointly organized an event called “Let’s protect our Mother Earth with the teachings of the Buddha.” This event covered the illegal trade and poaching of wild animals, illegal use of organs from wild animals and the products derived from them, and called upon event goers to refuse to violate the natural rights of animals. Great representatives of Buddhist monasteries in Mongolia, and religious leaders all attended this event.

Nyambayar Batbayar, the Director of WSCC, as well as myself, gave a talk about nature conservation through Buddhism and called upon all Buddhist temples and monks to join in the protection of the Dalmatian Pelican. At the end of the event, the representatives called on all Buddhist temples and monks to unite their voices and contribute to nature conservation by calling for their parishioners to stop using pelican beaks in horse racing events.

The Dalmatian Pelican Task Force

If we want to ensure the survival of the Dalmatian Pelican in East Asia, international cooperation on conservation and research activities is a must. To do just that, in 2019, Dalmatian Pelican experts convened near one of the last known breeding colonies in Mongolia. Here, they discussed the need for a conservation management plan for the species.

Despite being classified as Critically Endangered by the Animal Law of Mongolia and having a dwindling population in the wild, the Dalmatian Pelican has lacked a dedicated conservation management plan in Mongolia. To address this deficiency, in March 2022, in coordination with the EAAFP Dalmatian Pelican Task Force, we organized another key stakeholder meeting in Mongolia. During this meeting, the stakeholders identified the conservation actions that are required for the successful recovery of the species in Mongolia. These include additional awareness activities, pelican research, and putting an end to poaching.

Taking a lead from these Dalmatian Pelican Task Force meetings, WSCC has started several research projects with its partners to assess the habitat conditions of the Dalmatian pelican at Khar-Us Lake and Airag Lake in western Mongolia. These two lakes are the most critical breeding areas for the pelicans because they support the last breeding pairs and provide a safe place for non-breeding pelicans as well.

Unveiling unknown threats to the Dalmatian Pelican

In 2020, the WSCC team began a study on the migration of Dalmatian Pelicans from their Mongolian breeding grounds. We tracked 5 Dalmatian pelicans using GPS transmitters. From this tracking work, we’ve learned a lot of important, previously missing information about the pelicans, such as migration routes, dates, timing, stopover sites, and wintering sites. GPS tracking work has revealed that the pelicans may be suffering lack of suitable stopover sites throughout Mongolia during their migration. Once the pelicans arrive in China and coastal areas, the birds seem to be safer.

Following the announcement of our initial findings, we were contacted by a government office in South Gobi province. They had learned about the pelican situation and expressed their willingness to assist us in safeguarding one of the vital stopover sites within their jurisdiction. This was a truly remarkable moment. In September 2023, they successfully completed the construction of fencing around spring water sources to establish a secure resting area for pelicans during their migratory journey. We hope that there more people will come forward to help us in this way in near future.

Expanding environmental education and public awareness efforts

Public awareness about the critical situation of the Dalmatian Pelican is important for our success. We have disseminated information about Dalmatian Pelican research and conservation activities to the communities surrounding Khar-Us and Airaq Lakes, as well as conservationists, haymakers, high school students, and decision makers. This helps us attract more people to the conservation of this rare species

Every year on World Migratory Bird Day, we also organize public awareness events for university and high school students. At these events we always highlight the largest and rarest waterbird in Mongolia and East Asia, the Dalmatian Pelican. We utilise printed materials such as posters, leaflets, and illustrated booklets to communicate information and messages related to pelican conservation in Mongolia and East Asia. In addition, we started a Facebook page with the main purpose of improving pelican protection by exchanging information on the protection of the birds and their habitats.

All of these methods of outreach, through sporting associations, religious leaders, conservation practitioners and celebratory community events have proven to be invaluable in reaching the local people who share the landscape with these birds. We hope that these efforts lead to more care and concern for the scarcity of the Dalmatian Pelican and their habitats in Mongolia.

Horse Sweat Comb in use, photo from Bayarmaa Chuluunbat
This horse sweat comb is made from the beak of the Dalmatian Pelican, photo from Bayarmaa Chuluunbat
Monks at a WSCC event, photo from Bayarmaa Chuluunbat
Dalmatian Pelican with Satellite Tracker
Dalmatian Pelican with Satellite Tracker, photo from Bayarmaa Chuluunbat
WSCC is conducting research to determine the migration route and habitat conditions of the Dalmatian Pelican, photo from Bayarmaa Chuluunbat

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