The new World Zoo and Aquarium Conservation Strategy (WZACS)4 clearly outlines the key role zoos and aquaria can and must play in order to participate to their full potential in the global conservation coalition. In order to become a major force in global field conservation, zoos and aquaria will have to create and support field conservation units of multidisciplinary professionals. Zoo and wildlife veterinarians are especially acknowledged as a profession that can actively contribute to field conservation. The purpose of our presentation is to use our work in Mongolia as an example of minimum guidelines for zoo and wildlife veterinarians who wish to work in this area of the world.
Mongolia occupies an area of 1,565,000 km2 and is bounded on the north by Russia and on the south by China. Located deep within the interior of eastern Asia far from any ocean, Mongolia has a marked continental climate, with long, cold winters and short, cool to hot summers. The average yearly temperature lies below freezing. Mongolia is highland country, with an average altitude of 1,585 m above sea level. Eighty percent of Mongolia's area consists of pasturelands, which support immense herds of grazing livestock; the remaining area is about equally divided between forests and barren deserts, with only a tiny fraction of the land in crops. With a total population of slightly more than 2 million, Mongolia has one of the lowest population densities of any country in the world.3 Whereas in past years, numerous conservation projects have trained local wildlife biologists, the country today still lacks trained wildlife veterinarians and increasingly relies on international experts in order to perform routine procedures.
It is essential that at the onset of any project local stakeholders are informed and sought as partners. These are possibly difficult to identify from abroad and therefore the integration of local knowledge in the planning phase becomes essential. Local scientists are easily contacted through the respective universities and local non-governmental organizations. Similar to many other countries in central Asia and in contrast to many African countries, Mongolia does not have a wildlife unit or service. The responsibilities are fragmented between the Ministry of Nature and Environment, the Academy of Sciences, and the Mongolian National Commission for the Conservation of Endangered Species.
As in many former Soviet systems, knowledge is an important individual bartering tool and therefore is initially not made readily available; having to buy information not revealed in a previously published paper from a university researcher is not unheard of. This fact can lead to the duplication of efforts and inordinate frustration. Integrating alternative sources of information such as web-based forums offers direct uncensored information and facilitates the integration into the local scientific community (e.g., http://www.steppeforward.com/MongolBioweb.htm) (VIN editor: link could not be accessed on 1/29/21). Plan to actively participate in local scientific meetings. These can be official congresses and meetings, but also regular networking events that bring biologists in Mongolia together to share ideas, initiate collaborations and transfer information in a relaxed atmosphere (e.g., BIOBEERS http://www.steppeforward.com/Biobeers.htm) (VIN editor: link could not be accessed on 1/29/21). As has been described previously by many authors, integrating a training program in your project will greatly enhance the value and will contribute towards a sustainable long-term approach.1,2
A frank and honest discussion at the onset over issues relating to the ownership of the intellectual material and samples that issue from a collaborative project has proven very beneficial. The local rules governing authorship may possibly diverge from those in your own scientific community and should not be disregarded. Publishing in local journals (e.g., Mongolian Journal of Biological Sciences; www.biotaxa.org/mjbs) (VIN editor: the original link was modified on 1/29/21) and the local language will greatly enhance the value of the project and will directly benefit the local scientific community. The value of the web in making reports and documents available to a wider local community should not be overlooked.
Though obtaining the required permits (CITES, sanitation, capture, etc.) for the various aspects of the work can be extremely time consuming and laced with frustrations, in the long run it is advisable to adhere to these regulations. Plan the costs and time for acquiring these in your project plan. Always consider a “Plan B” for in-country sample storage in case permits do not become available.
When working in the remote field, be aware that in many instances you will have to be self-sufficient in all aspects. This includes not only personal health issues but also in many cases the health of others; being prepared to help can be vitally important in many situations. A minimal understanding of mechanics, good navigation, outdoor and survival skills can in some situations become of utmost importance. Local knowledge in these areas is, in the authors’ view, often vastly overrated and it appears wise to plan to be self-reliant and able to assist others in your party.
In order for a conservation project to be successful it will be essential to integrate many diverse issues. These can include diverse issues such as poverty alleviation, rural development, empowerment of local stakeholders and communities, educational and medical requirements. In order to address these issues with the same rigor as the scientific aspects of the work, alliances and cooperations will have to be sought out. Realizing that no single discipline holds the solution to maintaining the health, welfare and conservation of wildlife species and habitats, the establishment of truly multi-institutional transdisciplinary teams that perform effective and harmonious teamwork paired with seamless communication appears elemental. Long-term collaborations in which all partners understand and address the respective culturally and economically driven differences can be extremely fruitful and will contribute significantly to the conservation effort.
Veterinarians working in the field need substantial biological background, and veterinary knowledge and experience. But in order to be an asset to global conservation efforts, they also need to be versed in social, political and economic principles. The scale of the task in all cases greatly exceeds the purely scientific—veterinary aspects—and must be appreciated as lasting conservation outcomes require wildlife rangers and park staff to be trained and developed, local communities encouraged to participate, and governments and donors persuaded to provide support.4
1. Aguilar R.F., and D. Hilliard. 2000. Veterinary outreach coordinating technology transfer and professional training programs in Latin America. Proc. Am. Assoc. Vet.: 401.
2. Aguilar R.F., and Walzer C. 2002. International conservation extension. How the rubber chicken circuit, training visiting professionals, and performing workshops abroad can help rob Peter to pay Paul. Proc. Am. Assoc. Vet. Annu. Meet. 260.
3. Mongolia. 2005. Encyclopædia Britannica. 2005. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service 14 May 2005 http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?tocId=27454 (VIN editor: link could not be accessed on 1/29/21)
4. World Zoo and Aquaria Association. 2005. Building a future for wildlife—the World Zoo and Aquarium Conservation Strategy. Bern, Switzerland.