When Tulga and Yeruult Tumenjargal were boys, they tramped along the wild, birch-lined shores of Mongolia’s Onon River in search of river monsters. Beneath the pristine waters lurked taimen, apex predators that can grow to 6 feet long and devour just about anything that swims. But for taimen unlucky enough to snap at one of the brothers’ barbed hooks, there was one destination: the frying pan.
“I was a killer; every fish I caught, I killed,” Tulga recalls. But after he started working on guided fly-fishing trips at age 16, his outlook changed: “I learned about respect for nature,” he says.
Now, the fly-fishing brothers, both professional river guides, are among the taimen’s staunchest protectors, teaching poachers restraint and showing fellow Mongolians that taimen are more valuable in the river than on a dinner plate or at a roadside stand. It’s a tough sell in a country where the median income is $4,800 per year — much less in the countryside — and there’s an ingrained culture of taking what you need from the land. But starting in 2004, the Mongolian government officially designated the taimen a protected species, limiting fishing to catch and release with barbless hooks. Since then, catch and release sport fishing has been welcome, while hauling the river beasts from their natural habitat is forbidden.
Mongolia is a vast landlocked country — one that conjures images of nomadic herders, yurts and endless grasslands. But for fly fishermen, it’s become a place of pilgrimage to do battle with one of the biggest, most elusive freshwater fish on Earth. Taimen are near-mythic creatures, but the harsh reality is that they are steadily disappearing due to overfishing and habitat loss.
Yeruult and Tulga grew up near the Onon River in the country’s northeast, where, according to The Secret History of the Mongols, a young Genghis Khan fished for taimen as a boy trying to feed his poverty-stricken, exiled family.
Taimen (tul in Mongolian) are the largest member of the salmonid family, which also includes salmon and trout. They can live up to 55 years, giving them plenty of time to reach their massive length and 200-pound weight. Known locally as “the wolf of the river,” taimen are voracious predators that gulp up whatever they can, from trout and other taimen to mice, beavers and even birds. But by spending their entire life cycle in relatively small rivers, these behemoths also play a key role in regulating fish populations, which is critical to river health.
Despite Mongolians’ belief that taimen are sacred river spirits, poaching remains a persistent problem; the taimen population has fallen by at least 50 percent since 1985, and 19 percent of its habitat has been lost, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The same report anticipates a further decline of 60 percent in the next 20 years unless conservation efforts ramp up.
Which is where the Tumenjargal brothers come in. In each sum (the Mongolian equivalent of a county), there is a single wildlife inspector and one or two rangers charged with controlling big-game poaching, illegal fishing and even illegal mining. Assuming they have enough money to fuel their vehicles, it’s a daunting expanse to cover in the world’s least densely populated country. It falls to people like Yeruult and Tulga (and their father before them) to train other locals to monitor the river and report poachers to the authorities.
“The Tumenjargals are leaders on the environment, changing the mentality of the local people,” says Tsogtsaikhan Purev, an official with Mongolia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism. Pointing to himself, Purev adds, “Office workers can’t protect the environment, and there’s very few staff out there protecting the areas. We need a large force of locals.”
Yeruult, 31, runs his own guiding company and co-curates Mongolia’s national taimen web page, which gives local anglers information on season openings and closures as well as responsible fishing practices. He has trained countless anglers on sustainable practices and successfully lobbied his government to implement conservation techniques; these include targeting sensitive stretches of river, such as where taimen gather to spawn, making them more vulnerable to poaching.
When foreigners come to rural Mongolian communities preaching conservation, it’s hard to gain trust, but when familiar faces like Tulga speak and listen to local concerns, that can change minds.
“Since I’ve worked in the ministry, he’s been pushing me all the time,” Purev remarks. “Yeruult said first we need to change local people’s minds — give them a good understanding of the value and the benefit of conservation.”
Tulga, who says he was inspired by Let My People Go Surfing, written by Patagonia founder and famed conservationist Yvon Chouinard, recently set up an outdoor education project called the Bridge, aimed at rural teenagers. Using the wilderness as a classroom, he’s teaching young people how to spot poachers; navigate the wilds during hiking, kayaking, fishing and biking excursions; and acquire the skills to become guides. At just 24, he’s barely older than some of his students, but his own training stretches far back into childhood, when his father, a legendary local outdoorsman, would take him and his brothers on days-long hunting trips, with no protection from the elements other than a tarp and the clothes they were wearing.
When foreigners come to rural Mongolian communities preaching conservation, it’s hard to gain trust, but when familiar faces like Tulga speak and listen to local concerns, that can change minds, says Charlie Conn, executive director of the Taimen Fund, a Montana-based organization that supports Tulga’s work. “We don’t micromanage; we invest in people like Tulga because it’s so culturally important to do it,” Conn adds.
But Tulga admits it’s an uphill battle to change minds, especially in rural areas where work can be scarce and nature’s bounty seems limitless. “Some people can’t get a job, and they can [fish] to make money,” he says. “They think that if they take one fish from the river, the river will be fine because there are plenty of fish left in the river, but they don’t think about the future.”
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