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Winter 2005
photo by Katherine Lambert  
Down to Earth
By working together, unlikely partners preserve a delicate balance in Mongolia
Jeffrey Liebert, A91, can vividly recall the dedication ceremony this past summer of a stupa, or shrine, at the ruins of a Buddhist monastery in Mongolia, one of many destroyed during the Stalinist purges of the 1930s.

“It’s hard to imagine, but the location of the monastery is as remote as it gets—5,000 households in a 14,000-square-mile area is very sparsely populated,” he says. “On the day of the ceremony, close to 1,000 people came to pay tribute. We counted more than 500 horses tied to improvised hitching posts. It’s also one of the only monasteries in the world that’s multidenominational. The Buddhists gathered in a circle to listen to the monks chant, while citizens who practiced shamanist traditions formed a circle around the shamans. Then suddenly the Mongolian prime minister landed in a helicopter, creating enormous excitement. It was an unforgettable moment.”

That indelible memory is one of many Liebert shares as he talks about a five-year, $2.5 million conservation project that he developed to protect the taimen, or Siberian salmon.
Liebert is the first to admit there is not an obvious affinity between rebuilding a Buddhist monastery and protecting an endangered fish.

But that seeming incongruence illuminates a point at the center of his international work: everything is in fact interrelated. What ecologists call the web of life has proved profoundly important in an unusual partnership between American fly-fishermen, Buddhist monks, and University of Wisconsin biologists.

It’s part of a holistic “faith-based” approach to conservation one might not normally associate with those in the banking trade. Liebert, an investment officer with the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private-sector investment arm of the World Bank based in Washington DC, falls into that category—somewhat. A former Peace Corps volunteer in Mongolia, he is fluent in Mongolian and Russian, has a “pretty good”grasp of Mandarin, and possesses a kind of “let’s get it done” attitude that’s well tempered by a respect for other cultures and traditions. The friendships and connections he has developed over the many years of his affiliation with Mongolia, China, and Russia make a huge difference in his ability to get things done.

Jeffrey Liebert (second from left) with the prime minister of Mongolia at the opening ceremony celebrating the construction of a stupa, or shrine, at the Dayan Derkh Monastery in 2004.
“I will always be an outsider in these countries,” he says, “but a very knowledgeable and empathetic outsider. It makes a difference in my ability to work there effectively.”

Indeed, that experience and skill has been useful in his work helping establish the Taimen Conservation Fund (TCF), a local nongovernmental organization based in Mongolia. TCF’s approach to cultural preservation promotes sustainable economic development while also honoring the ancient nomadic culture of northwestern Mongolia. For Liebert, who initiated, drafted, developed, and submitted the taimen conservation project for funding, building that connection between cultural preservation and environmental conservation has been satisfying both professionally and personally.

“The dedication of the stupa was a very special moment for me, as I felt that I had not imposed a foreign concept on the people,” he says. “Rather, they adapted their own beliefs to a form of conservation that made sense to them.”

Dan Vermillion, co-owner of Sweetwater Travel, a fishing expedition company in Montana that leads catch-and-release fly-fishing tours in Mongolia, credits Liebert with having the knack to bridge what could have been a difficult cultural divide.

“There is no question that this project would not have gotten off the ground without his effort,” he says. “He helped us get more focused on how we do our business in Mongolia and how we can support the local communities. He’s exceptionally passionate and effective at accomplishing a project in an area as complicated as the Mongolian outback. He was able to integrate all three interests into one coherent project that is working really well.”

Jake Vander Zanden, an assistant professor of zoology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, is head of the science team in Mongolia; with TCF he is developing a science-based management plan to protect the taimen population.

“Jeff realized the significance of the taimen as a delicate and important species that needs to be conserved based on scientific information,” says Vander Zanden. “That he had the vision to pull all these different ideas together was outstanding. It’s one of the rare cases where it’s a win-win for everybody. So often in these situations different interests are at loggerheads, but Jeff had the vision to construct the project so that they’re all lined up in the same direction. And he’s such an energetic guy. I think he’s going to explode sometimes! But that also makes him fun to work with.”

Navigating the subtleties of different cultures comes naturally to Liebert, who graduated from Tufts with a double degree in international relations and Russian studies. Following graduation he lived in Russia, where he witnessed the influx of foreign entrepreneurs eager to work deals and take advantage of new market opportunities. When he joined the Peace Corps in 1992, he was assigned to Mongolia to help entrepreneurs establish small businesses.

“The experience was absolutely overwhelming,” he recalls. “Herds of sheep were roaming in the capital city’s central square. The whole country seemed to smell of mutton. The Mongolians were really struggling with keeping the coal mines and power plants running. It was an amazing experience to witness the birth of a country, political parties, and traders and currency speculators turning into millionaires overnight.”

After the Peace Corps, Liebert stayed on to work in the region for six more years, when his work included running American cashmere factories before he returned to the United States to enroll in the Wharton School of Business. With a newly minted MBA, he was attracted to the innovative work being done at IFC.

“I grew up in Seattle, and I watched my state destroy its rivers, mostly through logging and unsustainable development,” he says. “I always thought that if I had the opportunity to work in a different country at an earlier stage of development, it was my obligation to help prevent that from happening again. The types of projects that I’m investing in at IFC not only provide direct benefits to impoverished communities, they also leave a minimal human footprint on the environment. One of the recent companies I invested in, WaterHealth International, is sending 50 water disinfection and purification devices to the affected areas in Southeast Asia following the tsunami.”

The majestic Eg-Uur watershed.  

Formal conservation programs are still a relatively new idea in Mongolia. Historically, the country has been so sparsely populated that the human footprint on the land has been minimal. Often described as “a last frontier,” Mongolia is a newly democratic nation where tourism is now starting to take off, a boon that brings with it a balancing act: pursuing rapid economic development while also preserving ancient traditions and pristine natural resources.

“There is a right way and a wrong way to development,” says Liebert. “In the past, it always meant scarifying the environment for economic gain. But in Mongolia as in Bhutan, where more than ten percent of revenues come from tourism, the way you manage your natural resources is very important. Mongolia is an exotic and interesting place and a lot of people want to see it. So the question becomes, How do you maximize your returns without destroying what makes it such a fantastic destination? That is the million-dollar question.”

One such valued natural resource that is at stake is the taimen, a fish that can measure as much as six feet and weigh up to 200 pounds, making it the world’s largest salmonid (a classification that includes salmon and trout). The taimen have long been protected from the world; their remote Mongolian rivers are simply too difficult to access. But increasingly, poachers with nets, dynamite, and four-wheel-drive vehicles have been catching the fish illegally for sport and for urban markets. Gold mining is also increasingly threatening its habitat.

“Taimen populations have declined dramatically from poaching, pollution, and the building of dams,” says Vander Zanden. “We’re currently assessing its global conservation status, but it is either threatened or endangered across its range, which includes parts of Russia, Mongolia, and China.”

Part of the vulnerability of the taimen, says Vander Zanden, is that its size makes it a highly sought after species. But the species also reproduces late in life, and with a shortened reproductive span, any decline in fish populations can be devastating if the population does not have time to recover.

Tour operators have been attracted to the area for obvious reasons. Fly-fishermen are eager for a chance to catch and release the majestic fish. And, adds Vermillion, it’s one of the unique places in the world for coldwater fishing due to the fortuitous combination of the size of the fish, the beautiful scenery, and the people.

“This is about the only place in the world that you can fly-fish and be part of a fascinating and untouched culture,” he says. “Usually fishing lodges are far removed from communities, but here we’re close to an informal network of families living throughout the little valleys, where in some cases you find families

that go back 20 generations. It’s their home and they could not be more hospitable.”

Still, there were concerns. While the sport fishing expeditions bring substantial financial resources to a poor country, generating as much as $5,000 per fly-fisherman for a week of fishing, the Buddhist communities find the notion of catch-and-release fishing at odds with their belief in avoiding harm to any living thing.

Apossible solution emerged after tourist operators for fishing companies approached IFC. Liebert, with his wealth of experience in Mongolia, was a natural fit. He proposed an innovative concession system strategy: protect the fish by dividing the river into natural resource user zones, such as high-use zones and low-use zones, depending on river characteristics, and “restricted” zones, where fish are spawning. Fishing companies would participate in a competitive bidding system for exclusive long-term user rights and pay annual fees to local communities for access to their particular zones.

The idea of “concessioning” a river based on specific uses of the natural resource and tied to a physical zone on the river, says Liebert, seemed a sensible strategy in the effort to avoid the “tragedy of the commons” problem. If the river doesn’t have clear ownership rights and proper enforcement, there is a perverse incentive among competing user groups to overexploit a public good.

“Concessions are really about determining the most economically advantageous use of the river, based on what we know about the resilience of the habitat and the fish,” says Liebert. “It’s essentially the same system the Grand Canyon National Park employs to allocate a limited number of licenses to competing river-rafting companies. Sustainable tourism, or ecotourism, is based on the principle that certain natural resources of particular value left in a wild state can have a competitive financial rate of return if their use is limited and managed properly, rather than being treated as a high-use public good. It’s simply applying basic microeconomic theory from my entry-level economics class at Tufts.”

It is not, however, a quick sell in a country of nomadic tribes, few fences, and no history of private-property ownership. So Liebert helped put together a proposal that looked at the issue from the inside out. IFC teamed up with the World Wildlife Fund to help understand the environmental challenges facing communities and cultural attitudes toward tourism in a wider context. The taimen were not the only vulnerable resource; local mammals and forest resources were disappearing, too.

At public meetings, the team explained that the project would bring a credible system of sustainable management to the resources in the watershed. Fishing-company concession fees would go into a local fund to cover the costs of administering the management systems, training rangers to police against poaching, and bringing in Western-trained scientists to develop a natural resource use plan. Any additional revenues would be allocated to social services, such as schools and hospitals.

Liebert says the meetings opened up a dialogue with community members whose attitudes were not unlike those one might hear expressed in the American West. “I have always believed that a Mongolian nomad and a Montana rancher have more in common than a city slicker from either country,” he says. “Mongolians are open, very friendly, and fiercely individualistic. Though Mongolia and Timbuktu are often referred to as the proverbial middle of nowhere, anybody who has spent time in Mongolia will quickly recognize that it’s only the geographic distance that separates Mongolians from Western cultures.”

Science has also played a large part in the success of the project and will have profound implications for the taimen’s future. Part of Vander Zanden’s assignment is training Mongolian graduate students to do field work, the “next generation” to carry on the task.

Vander Zanden’s team, including a University of Wisconsin graduate student, David Gilroy, now living in Mongolia, is also conducting the first-of-its-kind study of the migratory patterns and spawning behavior of this species. They surgically implant a radio tag into the gut of each fish. The tag will transmit a specific code that scientists can pick up using receiving devices.

“We will be tracking these fish for the next five years, finding out where they are moving, their migrating patterns, and when they disappear,” explains Vander Zanden. “This is providing basic information that will determine how the concession system will be configured. Using this information, we’ll build a mathematical model of the population. We’ll then run simulations to determine the best approach, because we don’t want to do anything to cause the population to decline. That’s what’s so satisfying. The work we’re doing is feeding into something that will improve how this important resource is managed.”

It was clear from the start, despite best intentions, that notions about protecting the fish could be divisive. Buddhist culture reveres all living things, worshiping rivers, mountains, and animals. An ancient sutra warns that for every fish killed, 999 human souls will suffer, according to an article on the project in a recent issue of the Wall Street Journal. And people who mistreat rivers “risk the wrath of temperamental water spirits known as Lus. Their punishment: flood, famine, and skin infections.”

Buddhist community members and monks had to be convinced that the catch-and-release fishing did not hurt the fish or provoke the anger of the river. Sport fishing itself, in which tourists hook the fish in the mouth and pull it from the water for a quick photograph, did not square with Buddhist beliefs. “It’s difficult for the monks to see the fish removed from the river or stressed in any way,” says Liebert. “We did explain that the fish has no nerves in its mouth, which is made of cartilage. The issue of harm arises less from the hook itself than from hauling the fish close to shore. That’s why for every two people there is always one guide who is responsible for expertly handling the fish and returning it to the river.”

A 26-year-old Buddhist monk named Gantulga proved instrumental as well. Assigned to the project by the Mongolian equivalent of Tibet’s Dalai Lama, he helped communicate traditional cultural and Buddhist beliefs about conservation to local communities.

As one of a younger generation of Mongolians, Gantulga was open to the dialogue. “The monks I worked with are a dichotomy of old and new,” says Liebert. “They use multiple cell phones, yet are a storehouse of traditional values and beliefs. They have adapted their outreach to a changing world.”

Mr. Erdenebat, director of the Taimen Conservation Fund, noted that because Liebert lived in the Mongolian countryside for five years, his respect and understanding for the culture facilitated that dialogue. “He knows the Mongolian way of life and tradition better then many Mongolians who have grown up in the city,” says Erdenebat. “He is a good advisor and the success of the project is the result of his hard work.”

As an added incentive, project planners established a third-party nonprofit organization that will accept donations from Western visitors to help restore Gandan Monastery in Ulaanbaatar. Construction, which began last spring, is considered the first step not only in rebuilding the monastery, but also in generating buy-in from the local community. The reconstruction of the monastery establishes the credibility of the project, and represents a commitment to respecting traditional cultural values, says Liebert.

“Buddhism was banned under Mongolia’s communist rule,” he explains. “It’s now witnessing a tremendous resurgence, and rebuilding a monastery is both a symbolic and a practical gesture of great significance. It’s an effort that also connects the activity of catch-and-release fly-fishing with beliefs that are proconservation. It happened to be a very powerful argument.”

And perhaps there is no better testament to how well the Mongolians think of Liebert than the small ceremony that occurred one day after he had helped a ranger tag a taimen. Before each fish is released back to the river, they are given a name to show respect and gratitude.

“There’s now one named Jeff,” says Liebert, with a laugh. “It’s out there somewhere, hopefully, and will only have to endure a few nonlethal games of pull and tug with some tourists throughout its life. That’s a small price to pay for the survival of the species.”

For more information on the work being done by the Taimen Conservation Fund, visit www.taimen.org.