On the wild steppes of Transbaikalia
To be honest, I had very little idea about what a Mongolian gazelle was when I signed up for this expedition. I like to do a little homework on the animals I am going to shoot beforehand, but I barely found anything good on this species. On my return I had to dust off my first edition Soviet encyclopedia "Life of Animals". So the following is a mash-up of everything I was able to find in various sources.
The Mongolian gazelle is classified in the genus Procarpa which is a part of the subfamily of true antelopes - Antilopinae. This genus includes three species - the Przewalski's gazelle, the Tibetan gazelle and the Mongolian gazelle, the latter has one subspecies, the Altai gazelle. We are focusing on the Mongolian gazelle - Procarpa guttarosa. Strictly speaking, this animal is not a gazelle. Though related, the true gazelles have their own genus. So, to be as correct as possible from here on I will refer to our subject by its local name - the dzeren.
The genus Procarpa formed about 3 million years ago in Central Asia, the earliest fossils date back to late Pliocene - early Pleistocene. Then the climate in the region was milder and wetter. The antelope provided a source of food for the Neolithic tribes of early humans.
The species exhibits noticeable sexual dimorphism. The males can reach up to 84 cm at shoulder hight and weigh as much as 40 kg. The sport small horns and a very large throats.
The females are all hornless and are significantly smaller than the males, reaching only 54 cm at the shoulder and 20 kg in weight. Naturally, in autumn everybody gets heavier, so the weight increases.
The dzeren is incredibly mobile, with herds covering dozens of kilometers a day, never staying in one place. It is one of the fastest and hardiest antelopes in the world. It can run 15 kilometers at a speed of 60-65 kmph without breaking a sweat, and if need be can accelerate to 75 kmph. Based on my observations I can say that one paranoid specimen (usually there's more than one) is enough to set off the entire herd, but, curiously enough, the animals do not form a stampede. They split into groups and some of these may stop or do a 180 turn and run in the opposite direction. As a pro runner the dzeren prefers relatively clean and hard ground and avoids snow, sand, mud, soft and sticky clay surfaces.
In the summer the antelope stick together in smaller groups and feed in the twilight hours of the morning and the evening. In the bright of day and at night they lay over in lowlands or between hills. In autumn and winter the change their schedule to daytime grazing and start to gather in larger numbers. By the time rutting season arrives in November (it may last all the way to early January) the herd number hundreds and thousands of animals.
When spring rolls in the time for birthing young forces the herds to split up, as the females break away to search for proper calving grounds. They gather en masse in the relative safety of the hills, their numbers varying from several dozen to several hundred. A female will usually give birth to a single calf, twins are rare. The reproductive numbers fluctuate greatly depending on the weather. Harsh snowy winters and droughts can decrease the number of births by two or three times.
The calves lie low on the ground for about a week. After that they start following their moms, but the instinct to drop and hide at any sign of danger stays strong. The young are a coveted prey for golden eagles, wolves, Pallas cats, steppen foxes etc. Basically any predator is out to get them. Adults fear wolves, golden eagles and poachers.
Admittedly, there's not much readily available information on the dzeren. I found a lot on the 2019 news, however, as that was the year the antelope began a mass migration across the Russian-Mongolian border. This event was caused by a 20-year-long drought that desolated the animals' feeding grounds in Mongolia.
Unfortunately, the only ones who were happy to see this inflow of Red List animals into Russian territory were scientists and poachers. For the locals the thousands of antelopes present undesirable competition for food to the cattle. There have even been attempts to slander the dzeren, claiming that with their arrival the wolves have put more pressure on domestic stock. True, the wolves do follow the wild herds, but they don't give two hoots about cattle when it is far easier to pick up dzeren stragglers, weakened by the rut and the migration.
There were attempts to lay blame on the dzeren for other things, like the foot-and-mouth disease and the exhaustion of pastures. Neither of these accusations held up against evidence, but tens of thousands of fuzzy "forbidden fruit" making their way across the steppes caused a lot of ill-wishers to lose sleep. Personally, I like the pasture thing. i have seen exhausted pastures, barren and bone-dry, turning the steppe into a desert. Surprise, surprise, the damage was caused by herds of domestic goats and sheep, not by the animals it belonged to for millions of years. These animals, by the way, have served as lawn-mowers here from the very beginning, keeping the grasses in check and reducing the amount of fuel for the terrifying wildfires. Every animal in nature is exactly where it is supposed to be, so we might need a second look to determine who's imposing on whom.
The dzeren mass forays into Russian territories that began 20 years ago established a non-migratory breeding population of dzeren. The species has long been considered low-numbering in Russia. Here on the northern edge of its natural habitat it is considered endangered and is included in the Red List, even though the population is stable. In order to protect the rare animals in 1987 the Daursky State Nature Biosphere Reserve was founded.
It is situated in the Ononsky region and includes the floodplains of the river Onon, the open steppes and a gorgeous pine forest.
This is the land of legends. It was here, somewhere in this edgeless sea of grass that the great Ghengiz-Khan was born, raised and buried. On one occasion I was even taken to a local landmark where he was sure to have been, because this stone has been a sacred place of worship even back in his day.
As per custom, I made a small offering and walked around the stone. The local spirits must have heard me and sent us their blessing, because as soon as we drove off, we found a large family of Daurian partridge in a very nice open spot.
I always get a strange feeling in places like this - as if time itself flows differently here. Surrounded by pristine nature you forget the excessive commotion and the false glitter of modern daily life. Here you can find a connection not just with nature, but with generations of people going back thousands of years. In the endless and untamed steppes of Dauria it is easy to imagine sharp-eyed archers on small shaggy horses chasing massive herds of wild antelopes. Such epic hunts that fed the hoards of nomadic warriors went down in legends. Could these hunters of old have imagined that the living rivers of antelope would ever run dry and hunting these animals would be punishable by law? Many events have come to pass either without a trace or preserved only in epics, passed down from one generation to the next. But there is still a hoard rolling across the windswept plains - an invasive force that stirs up just as much controversy as the one before.
The dzeren migration is one of very few land migrations that can be observed in Russia. As a photographer I could not afford to pass up this opportunity. I was dead set on my goal and no hurdle was big enough to deter me. And there were hoops to jump through! I even had to postpone the expedition at one point. The catch is, you need a special permit to go to this area, because it is so close to the border. Nowadays everything can be done online, so that's what I did. The first time around the procedure went without a hitch but the permit got lost in the mail. I couldn't leave on schedule, so I went in for round two. I took the same template, filled it in the same way as before, but somehow what was good enough then wasn't accepted this time. A bureaucratic circus commenced. My application was denied several times, each time I was given more and more corrections. Finally, after a very long and detailed discussion over the phone, everything was accepted. After a standard waiting period of two weeks my permit was issued. This time I didn't trust the post office with it and had somebody else pick it up for me.
Now I could get on with my work. I arrived in Chita in the morning and started working in the afternoon.
Meeting my subject face to face, I found the dzeren to be a much cuter animal than was expected based on images from the internet.
This is a rather small antelope about as big as a medium-sized dog. The thin long legs make it look larger than it really is. No doubt, a helpfull illusion. Since it's winter the antelopes are coveredi in long dense fur that makes them look like plushies.
The fur seemed very thick and soft and I got so curious that on one of our sessions I stopped by a freshly fallen male just to examine the fur a bit closer. Turned out, the animal is completely covered in fur, there are no patches of open skin at all. The guard hairs are about 10 cm long and the underfur is incredibly thin and dense. On the male's throat the fur becomes even softer, with a downy quality to it. Despite being perfectly designed to resist the freezing temperatures and harsh winds, the hairs aren't brittle like those of reindeer or moose. Unlike the fur of those animals the dzeren's hairs don't seem to be hollow.
The dzeren's most attractive feature is its face which, due to the anatomy, has a sweet naive smile. To put it mildly, it gives the antelope a somewhat dopey but cute appearance.
This makes the females look even lovelier - charming yet air-headed.
The male dzeren is an odd creature. He has horns, but is in no hurry to use them during the rut, preferring to settle differences through a harmless running display.
Why fight, when there are so many females available? The best males exhaust themselves to a point of fatal collapse not by fighting competitors, but by breeding and caring for the harem. Their characteristic and rather unique feature is the enlarged throat.
When doing my homework on the species in preparation for this expedition I read that this was an evolutionary enhancement of the vocal apparatus for a better sound. Well, from what I heard the dzeren's mating call is a relatively soft bark. I was expecting something like the elk's trumpeting, but instead heard a short guttural signal. I don't know whether that was worth the extra evolutionary step, but I guess as long as they are happy, it's all good.
In the Tsasuchey pine forest, which is part of the Daursky Reserve, a very peculiar sight can be observed - a strict plains dweller walking among young pine growth. After the devastating fires that ravaged the forest a few years ago, the pines have started to grow back, but in many places the term "pine forest" can still be applied only loosely. The young trees do look promising - fluffy and sturdy, they are overtaking all the available space. It is here that the dzeren seek refuge from the brutal winds, unwilling to go deeper into the woods, into a habitat completely foreign to them. The wolves abuse this weakness, pushing the antelope against the forest line and picking off the disoriented animals.
After working under the assaulting wind I totally get it. Wolves or not, you will be thankful for take even the smallest opportunity to hide from the winds.
Don't get me wrong, I was dressed for the occasion, so there was no need to fear the cold and the wind. But when I was shooting a part of my face and my hands always got exposed. It seemed that the wind was settling a personal score, that's how vicious the attack on open skin felt. The pain was almost immediate and it only increased in warmth as the blood rushed to frozen flesh. It felt like my fingers had been smashed with a hammer and then had the nails ripped off. Sometimes the pain got so bad I wanted to howl, but instead I white-knuckled through in silence only to go outside again and subject myself to another round of torture. Problem is I can't work with a camera in gloves. Ones that are thick enough to provide protection don't let me feel the camera and thin ones are useless against this kind of wind and cold. I had to apply a generous coat of oily regenerative cream to my dehydrated leathery skin. In the end I did manage to restore it and maintain it at a healthy level, but if I skipped an application, the damage would become visible again. That, however, did not curb my enthusiasm.
In the forest the dzeren isn't as skittish as in the open plains, but you can deduce from the animal's behavior that it knows not to trust a human's presence. We had to approach them by car and then shoot them, using our vehicle as cover. On this trip I gained a lot of respect for the UAZ minivan for its ability to go off-road, but it is not a photographer-friendly car. Understandable, since the park rangers use it for different purposes. It even had an iron furnace installed, so that the rangers could keep warm during long raids. I still want to mention the downside for a photographer so that others may use my experience.
So, if you are riding in the back you're in for a rough ride, prepare to hold on for dear life or get thrown around mercilessly. I had to push my foot against the furnace and my back - against the seat, that helped. But as soon as we would get close to our subject, I had to stick my camera out of the window and give up my stabilizing position. This car stops very abruptly, so I would get thrown forward, losing precious moments on readjusting myself to shoot.
Another inconvenience is that the passenger door is only on one side, so is the only window you can open. And this crappy little window only opens at an angle to the car's side, severely narrowing the mobility of your lens. This way you are only able to shoot what's directly in front of you and that puts extra responsibility on your driver and navigator.
The one-sidedness of the car often forced us to drive around the herd to position the vehicle so that we would be facing the animals from our side. Opportunities would get lost, the animals would get spooked, it was hard. If we had to get out and shoot animals on the other side, we'd also lose valuable seconds and the animals weren't always tolerant to the sight of humans. It doesn't seem as bad when you have so many opportunities, but it is still far from the best option (it's the only one, though). I truly hope that the reserve will one day arrange a more suitable transportation for photographers.
After wrapping up our forest shoots we moved out along the border of the forest to find the farthest outpost somewhere out in the open steppes. Oh what gorgeous pines grow here! Unrestrained and open to the wind they grow up to become beauties from Japanese paintings. And here we were met by another wave of dzeren marching from the steppes into the pine woods.
Just like the dzeren, the camel ruts in winter and males become very aggressive and dangerous. The only true wild Bactrian camel left live in the heart of the Gobi desert and don't let humans come closer than three kilometers. Looking at this charismatic macho camel and his companions one could easily question their domesticity. Close contact with humans could only make this beast more brash, but not tame.
In any case my target was the dzeren, so we moved on. The Utochi outpost is open to all winds, but inside the guest cabins there are furnaces and a supply of firewood so dry it catches fire immediately and burns through quickly.
One bunch of firewood was good for three hours in the long-burning furnace, so at night I had to get up a few times to add more. I'm used to furnaces, though the ones I have at home do not require such frequent additions of fuel. But we're talking about a very different house, furnace and fuel. No worries, I still got enough good sleep despite moonlighting as a stoker. In regards to other creature comforts conditions here are more spartan, but I've seen far worse. If you have a warm comfy place to rest, you can endure some inconvenience for a couple of days. Especially when you have such filming opportunities!
The Utochi outpost has a unique feature. Its cabins are the only good shelter from the elements and predators on the giant flat tapestry of the windswept plains, so the Tolai hares gather here by the dozens. Usually they seek refuge under the buildings and jump out like bats out of hell when you come too close. They don't go far and return quickly - golden eagles survey the grass sea tirelessly. The hares have beaten paths around the cabins.
The tolai hare isn't endangered on a world scale but is still protected here in the region, so all the rabbits at the outpost are very bold. This, of course, only benefits the photographer. They let you come close, you have several specimens to chose from, they vary in color and in their tolerance of human presence. The steppen hare doesn't turn white for the winter, but the color palette is quite diverse - from light grey to a non-wintery brown. Whatever the color, it is nigh invisible in the grass. On several occasions hares shot out right from underneath my feet while I was focusing on one sitting a little further away.
Photographing wild hares is usually pretty hard, so here you can really have fun with it. You can take five and go warm yourself inside your cabin, you can select your preferred model, find a more interesting angle or ask someone to help drive the hare in a desired direction. I am happy I dedicated time to these furballs.
The dzeren remained my primary target. We crisscrossed the grassy plains looking for calmer groups and better angles. Valery Maleev, who organized this expedition for me, would joke that we were like Mongol warriors who had the war cry "Uraksha!" ("Forward!") and no word for retreat, just a 180 turn and "Uraksha!" again. And that was how we scowered the steppes for our (almost) golden antelope.
At times we even had to lay on the frozen ground, waiting for the dzeren to come to the exact spot at the exactly right time. You lay there, admiring how the sun highlights the dry grass, and you realize that the light is fading fast, soon your perfect moment will be lost. All you cando is hope that the animals won't spook and come to you, because you are quickly running out of time and the ability to endure the cold.
Later on our driver laughed as he told his co-workers: "These guys are crazy! They jump out of the car and lay on the ground in the cold and the wind!". What else could we do if we were tired of seeing our subjects furry butts at a three quarters angle? Nature photographers can be fanatics, no argument there. The hunt for your perfect shot is like gold fever. But the result is worth it. And as you nurse your aching fingers, thinking on how best to heal the skin damaged by the freezing wind, your heart warms up from the knowledge that you got your shot.
In conclusion, I can say that this expedition exceeded my aexpectations and I regret being so dismissive of the gentle dzeren. They were totally worth the trouble. Now, when I share my story with my friends it is becoming clear how little is known about this animal outside of specialist circles and its habitat. Meanwhile, the dzeren take part in one of the last great land migrations on the planet! We enjoy documentaries about wildebeest crossing the African savannah and are clueless about a similar event in out own land. Scary to think that the thousands-strong flowing rivers of smiling antelopes can just fade into the mists of time if we don't stop living one day at a time and taking things for granted.
Nowhere was the feeling of uncertainty and the vulnerability of surrounding beauty stronger than here. This is a true frontier where you have not only state borders, but the border between the forest and the steppes, human habitat and wilderness. As with any other frontier, things here are complicated. We argue over who is responsible for garbage collection and disposal, who owns the forest and whether you can hunt if it is forbidden, but you really, really want to, never even considering the thought that the wide stream of fleet-footed dzeren can dry up. The immense open space of the steppes and the great sky above create an illusion of eternity, nay, timelessness. If you try, you can catch a glimpse of the shadow of a great conqueror out of the corner of your eye, and feel the ground rumble under the hooves of small shaggy horses. Look further and you can picture early humans following the fleeing antelope with their eyes as they make their way through the steppes on their way East. Reach out and feel the history of centuries past, it is here, so very close. It gives a false impression that the future will preserve what we are abusing now. It won't. The timeless beauty of the steppes is glass fragile, and the golden horde of the plushy dzeren - incredibly vulnerable. We will not be able to fill the void they will leave behind should they disappear, we have nothing of equal value to offer as replacement. This makes me treasure my experience and memories even more. I have been there, I have seen it, and like the story-tellers of old I will go on telling tales of the brutal winds sweeping across the endless steppe, flaming sunset skies and golden smiling antelopes.
P.S. Once again expressing my gratitude to Valery Maleev for this expedition. It was a pleasure to once again work with this wonderful photographer!
P.P.S. The title of the story is a line from a traditional Russian song. The first verse translates as:
On the wild steppes of Transbaikalia,
Where people dig for gold in the mountains,
A vagrant, bemoaning his fate,
Is wandering with a sack on his back.
My family had a lot of fun teasing me with this song after the expedition, so I decided to make the first line into a title.