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How 1 Dog Project is Saving the Mongolian Grassland Steppes


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The Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project (MBDP) is a nonprofit organization with a mission of slowing down and reversing the “desertification of the Mongolian Grassland Steppes.” According to the project’s website, they plan to achieve that goal by resurrecting the traditional use of the livestock guardian dog known as the Bankhar.

Saving the Steppes

Director Bruce Elfstrom says the MBDP researches, breeds, and trains Mongolian Bankhar livestock protection dogs and places them in homes of nomadic herding families on the Mongolian Steppes. This allows the dogs to protect families’ sheep and goats, which are closely tied to their livelihood, from predators like wolves, snow leopards, and more.

“The use of the Livestock Protection Dog has been shown to reduce depredation on domestic livestock by 80-100%, reducing the need for lethal predator control and encouraging predators to target natural prey species instead of domestic ones,” according to the project’s website.

Over a decade ago, Elfstrom was traveling through Mongolia. He learned that most of the country’s dogs had been killed off, leaving local herders in quite a bind. The MBDP was subsequently formed to address the issue. Breeding areas were built and Elfstrom and his team got to work.

Finding the Bankhars

embark bankhar

Elfstrom spent a long time learning the ropes and understanding how to best achieve the project’s goals. So far, the MBDP has bred approximately 50 dogs and placed about 40 with herders. These herders must adhere to instructions within a contract in exchange for the dog. The contract outlines how the dog should be housed and cared for. If the herders don’t comply, Elfstrom says he will take a dog back with no questions asked.

“We have a really hard, very positive, useful protocol to raise the dogs,” Elfstrom said. “We visit periodically and do data collection through interviews and surveys.”

When Elfstrom is looking for a Bankhar, he has specific traits in mind. The dog has to be athletic, fast, pushing 100 pounds, and nurturing. A thick coat is important, too! They are built for below zero temperatures and Elfstrom said that snow doesn’t even melt when it lands on their long, thick fur.

The Bankhars live, eat, and sleep with the sheep they protect in order to enhance the bonding process. The dogs stay in the middle of a herd and stop a threat if it arises. Elfstrom says herders were losing about 50 sheep a year before the project got started but now they only lose about three annually.

That’s a “radical positive result,” Elfstrom proudly reported.

embark bankhar

Embark’s Involvement

Embark’s Chief Science Officer Adam Boyko became involved in this project by analyzing some of the dog’s DNA samples and confirming that they were in fact Bankhars. It turned out that the Bankhars had four different haplotypes that couldn’t be found in any other dogs. This allowed Boyko to identify them as a very unique population.

“Not only are Bankhars near the center of diversity for dogs worldwide, they’ve evolved into a massive landrace breed suited to the harsh conditions of the steppe while retaining a tremendous amount of genetic diversity compared to most dog breeds,” Boyko said. “There’s a lot of genetic material to work with to save this population if only we can retain large enough breeding populations and avoid introducing non-native dogs into the lines.”

Boyko has helped tremendously with the breeding program. He has helped define what a landrace is and to determine the differences between a landrace and breed.

“Can the model that we developed that mimics the process that makes a landrace be used to save modern breeds?” Elfstrom wonders.

Possibly. It certainly is a model that other projects can take advantage of. Therefore, the MBDP could help save other modern breeds and had a hand in preventing Bankhars from becoming endangered or extinct. Plus, the project has shown Mongolians that the Bankhar is not a Tibetan Mastiff. This got them excited about the dog again through their work.

“We are trying to team up with breeders that understand the aspects we are going after genetically and with Embark’s help we are hoping to develop a program that breeders use,” Elfstrom said.

He’d like to figure out how to reproduce in the modern world. This will keep the landrace as it was when it developed naturally.

embark bankhar

The Project Today

Currently, there are about 15 of the project’s dogs working in Mongolia. This is due to a learning curve in the first couple of years after launching. The role of some of the earlier dogs was to help the project learn and create the best protocol. And while some of them aren’t working anymore, they are companions at the very least.

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