10 Day In Hulun Buir

By   Zeyi Gu

There is a place where grassland stretches to merge with the sky, where eagles soar and wolves roar, where winter lasts for half of a year and snow walls up, severing all ties with the outside world. That place is Wulan wetland (48’21’’16’’’ N, 117’28’’60’’’ E) in inner Mongolia of China and I had the pleasure of working with the legendary wolf doctor Huashan Dou from August 16 to August 25 at a local ecological research institution by Wulan wetland, at the core of Hulun Lake National Reserve(47’45’’50’’’ N-49’20’’20’’’ N, 116’50’’10’’’ E-118’10’’10’’’ E), a 7400 square kilometers land fraught with life.

by zeyi gu
by zeyi gu

I had heard the legends of Dr. Dou even before I came to Hulun Lake National Reserve. He’s been studying animal behavior since he graduated from college. Driven by his passion for wolves, he traveled thus afar from his home, Shandong province (more than a thousand kilometers away), to inner Mongolia in pursuit of all there is to know about wolves as well as to monitor the biological diversity of the local environment. He has studied wolves so well that he can deduce the age, gender, and behavior pattern of a wolf by simply observing its footprints. What’s even more impressive is that with years of intimate contact with wolves, he somehow has developed a set of communication skills to grasp the emotions conveyed by their voices and body movements. “When they squat down with their eyes squinting, they are not as wary of men as usual and it is a good time to approach them, ” said him confidently when talking about his enthusiasm for wolves. When I asked him where his zeal for wolves stemmed from, he said seriously with a tint of sadness, “They are important animals. Wolves are at the top of food chain and their number is good indication of how vibrant the local ecosystem is. Another reason is that wolves’ population has been decreasing since 1960s’ due to overgrazing and poaching. In college I studied how ecology and humans are interdependent and I feel obligated to invest my knowledge into preserving a healthy ecosystem. My job is to protect all living creatures in Wulan wetland so that we have a diverse environment, wolves included.”

by zeyi gu
by zeyi gu

After being shortly introduced to the head of the institution, Mr. You Zhang, a sixty-one-year-old man, I took a brief visit of the place I’d be staying for the days to come. The institution consisted of a small two-story main building, a cellar for storage, and interestingly enough, two barred housing facilities for five wolves. They immediately caught my attention, so I inquired Dr.Dou how they ended up here. As it turned out, they were all injured wolves he had found at Wulan wetland. “They were hurt and I had to bring them home. Local herdsmen would undoubtedly kill them because they fear wolves would hurt their sheep, causing economic damages they can’t afford. Eventually I will set them free, but it takes time,” he said with great concern written over his face. I couldn’t help wondering how he talked herdsmen into believing that wolves are a necessary component of the food chain and they should not be eradicated. I thought that deep down local herdsmen understand wolves’ irreplaceable ecological value that they prevent sheep from overpopulating and they prey on smaller animals that are predators to sheep as well; but it is hard for them to see this value when profits pose a more pragmatic concern. Later I pointed this out to Dr.Dou; he agreed with me, “you are right, communicating with herdsmen is a delicate matter. It is equally important to protect their property as they belong to this ecosystem as well. Last time I tried to set those wolves free, but they ate some of herdsmen’s sheep. I paid for their losses myself and had to confine wolves to such limited space,” he looked at his wolves that paced back and forth in six-leaps-long cells compassionately and slightly helplessly. “Before I find adequate time and place to return them to their home, I have to keep them here. It is not fair, but right

by zeyi gu
by zeyi gu

now it is the best thing for them and it needs to be done,” he sighed, yet with great resolve. Summer is incredibly short in inner Mongolia and late August is the time to store food for wolves. “Snow starts in late September and in October roads would begin to freeze and snow would accumulate, cutting all means of transportation in and out of the institution. I have to prepare enough meat for wolves for the possible negative forty degree celsius. Each week wolves consume more than thirty kilograms of chicken in total. The nearest town is three hours drive from here and whenever I am in town I’d get some meat for storage. It is always good to stay prepared,” Dr.Dou answered my question regarding wolves’ sustenance on our walk back to the main building. Inside the building were dorms for eleven staff members, all of whom are biologists. Mr.Zhang gave me a tour around the house and once again I was taken by surprise—I couldn’t shower and had no access to wifi. Probably having captured the sudden anxiety on my face, Mr.Zhang explained, “ We are indeed nearby Hulun Lake, the fourth biggest freshwater lake of China. Normally we would have ample water resource at our disposal. But that would mean we have to extract water from a place home to over two hundred kinds of birds and amphibians. Since we don’t have proper means to dispose of used water, we can’t shower here. We wouldn’t leak water containing toxic compounds into the marsh. We don’t have wifi either because we are in an isolated institution, too far away from populated areas.” In fact, since the institution is so distant, staff members have to spend close to three hundred days there every year, away from their homes, their families. To be honest I wasn’t comfortable with the notion of not being able to shower and having no internet at first. But if all the scientists at the institution, especially Mr.Zhang, who has spent twenty-five years there, can power through it, so can I.

Dr.Dou was running a biodiversity-monitering project assigned by Nanjing Institute of Environmental Science affiliated with Ministry of Environmental Protection of China; I was honored to join his team. After I settled in and had lunch, I received my first research program. Our first step was to count the numbers of two amphibians—Rana amurensis (Ra) and Bufo raddei Strauch(BrS). Amphibians are the most sensitive to changes in their environment, which makes it especially important to have a reasonable estimation on their population quantity and range of activity. We first left to set up traps at ten different locations: two of them at typical grassland, two at muddy banks of lake, two at reedy swamp, two at salix shrub by waterbed and two at grassy marshland of flood plain. We dug two holes large enough to place two empty plastic barrels in and used webs to horizontally divide barrels in half. The webs were high enough to prevent any amphibian from leaping over and we’d come back to check the results after twenty-four hours. It took us an entire afternoon to finish setting up traps and we all got home with over ten bug bites.

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The next day we got up at six o’clock to walk routes that covered twenty different locations where both Ra and BrS were most likely to be found, each aforementioned ecological type having four location points. We walked sixty kilometers in seven days, gathered data as to two species’ population quantities and did statistic analysis afterwards. The sun was scorching in the brief summer of inner Mongolia; it was hard to keep a certain pace while keeping an eye on those toads. One of our members asked Dr. Dou why we had to do this again since we had data from the past and why we could’t just rely on data gleaned from traps. Dr.Dou instinctively answered, “What we are doing is called line-transect method and it covers a much wider range than trapping method does. It has its own advantages and we need to incorporate both methods to generate the most reliable data. Trapping method to some degree is more accurate at defined areas but we are looking at the entire wetland. We will also be walking the routes at night because we might get different results as different kinds of amphibians prefer different time of a data to be active.” Dr.Dou has to walk the routes twice a year: at pre-reproduction time in June and post-reproduction time in August. Everyday after our walk I was exhausted, both physically and mentally. I couldn’t imagine how Dr.Dou has spent twelve years repeating the same work, just to avoid the slightest error. When we reached those planned twenty locations, we’d measure nearby waterbody’s pH value and the temperature as well as the

humidity of the soil. Dr.Dou insisted on measuring three times to get the average and we would later compare it to amphibians’ activity patterns. “The ecosystem is undergoing some drastic changes: Hulun Lake has shrunk significantly this year because of the unexpected drought and water loss during the construction of a highway nearby. Mr.Zhang and I have protested a dozen times against this construction. We were worried that such dramatic water loss has caused the water level to drop and fish wouldn’t survive the upcoming winter. We are worried that if fish all froze to death, aquatic birds would suffer too. We are concerned that the entire food chain were going to be severely affected. We couldn’t allow this to happen. What we could do right now is keep a tight track of any change of the environment. We monitor the biodiversity ultimately to protect the environment,” Dr.Dou expressed his genuine concern. I looked at him and I found passion in his eyes; I am certain it is that passion that fuels him to tirelessly walk the land against the stinging hot rays of the sun and imaginably the freezing wind of a minus forty degree celsius winter. If I were to say something about a man who left home to pursue a passion he is proud of, who has persevered in an isolated land for twelve years, it would be that I admire him.

Despite conducting scientific research, it is also Dr.Dou and Mr.Zhang’s job to protect the reserve from human error accidents; they are guardian angels as well. On my third day there, there was a fire hazard at grassland. I woke up at six o’clock in the morning and saw smoke rising from the horizon. I went to Dr.Dou wanting to know what’d happened. But he, along with Mr.Zhang and six other members, had driven to the site of accident already. Another member told me hastily that a field mower of a herdsman’s had malfunctioned and caused fire. Around noon they came back with a layer of soot on their faces, odor of charred plants wafting in the air. “It took us an entire morning to put out the fire. We were lucky that it was only the periphery of the wetland that caught fire. But still…” Dr.Dou panted, frowning and guzzling a jar of water. In the afternoon I went to the scene of fire with Mr.Zhang to help take on-spot record. I was shocked to see a chunk of blackness mixing incongruously with the far-reaching green. I took a closer look, there

were desiccated bodies of toads strewn on the blackened earth, reeking. Mr.Zhang gently picked up a dead toad and took a deep breath, sighing, “This won’t happen again.”

Staff members of the institution also guard the wetland against poachers. Mr.Zhang proudly described his work, “I have to stop fishermen from fishing in the wetland. At first I’d give them a warning but if they refuse to follow the rules I’d have to fine them. After all, I carry a badge!” He said it with much ease but later at dinner I knew that he had received death threat from poachers. He showed me his police badge and at that moment I came to the understanding that science and preservation of the environment are inseparable. Their most notable “trophy” was a nine-months old female saker. Sakers are extremely preferred by Arabic royals and poachers profit enormously from saker-trafficking as each saker is worth at least a hundred thousand dollars at black market. Dr.Dou confiscated her from a bird trafficker two months ago. She was lifted from her nest when she was a baby, lacking basic survival skills. That’s why Dr.Dou has been training her to hunt for food, specifically smaller birds and rabbits, for the return to her natural habitat. He was planning on setting her free in September, when it is time for sakers to migrate to Tibet for the winter and hopefully by then she will be well-equipped with rudimentary skills to support herself. A member of his research team joked, “if you sell her you’d get more than several years’ income.” Dr.Dou laughed, “That’s true. But I’d be a hypocrite if I were to profit from wild animals I promised to protect.”

I spent the remaining days finishing walking the routes and recording the weight of amphibians we trapped. As I was entering data into Dr.Dou’s laptop, I found spreadsheets and spreadsheets of data collected from time dated back to as far as 2010. It was already a kind of tedious task to just gather and enter data; I had so much respect for Dr.Dou, who is just willing to repeat laborious work for his belief. On my last day, we

went out exploring the diversity of birds. We hung a web between two trees and waited for birds to hit the web. We’d photograph the birds we caught, study their features and then return them to the wilderness. I learned about three kinds of birds and that was the most fun part of my work.

Ten days passed fleetingly with sweat and light. On his long way driving me to the airport, Mr.Zhang asked me what I thought about the institution, about Wulan wetland. I deliberated over and over again trying to come up with something that would do them justice, but at the end all I could say was that, “You guys are awesome.” I wasn’t able to express how honored I was to meet a group of men with passion, perseverance and faith. Mr.Zhang smiled and nodded, that day he was particularly happy because he could go home and see his hundred-days-old granddaughter who he had not met yet. He grinned at me, saying, “Would you come back again?” I cast a glimpse at the grassland teeming with life and made up my mind, “Sure.”

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