A Secret History of Mongolian Wolves - 8 minutes read

Ben Jones
Ben Jones

In Mongolia, where the dominant lifestyle is nomadic pastoralism, threat comes from the land. Wolves (chono) are found throughout the nation’s various ecosystems: steppe, semi-desert, mountains. Their existence has been lamented and romanticised for centuries.

Mongolia’s most famous son, Chinggis Khan, was supposedly descended from one. As recorded in The Secret History of the Mongols, Chinggis’ first ancestor was Grey Wolf (Börte Chono). Another ancestor, ‘Alan the Fair’, was impregnated by a ‘heavenly golden dog’ – likely a euphemism for a wolf. The Secret History was written after Chinggis’ death in 1227 and is one of the few documents written in the imperial Mongolian language. Commissioned by Chinggis’ grandson Möngke Khan, it covers Chinggis’ ancestry and was intended as a blueprint for future rulers. But though we learn of Chinggis’ lupine origins, it also contains multiple references to wolves as an enemy. When Öelün, Chinggis’ mother, rebukes him for killing his half-brother Bekter, she compares him to ‘a wolf that stalks in the whirling blizzard’. Chinggis had four generals, named his ‘Four Dogs’, who were said to be fed human flesh and are described as ‘like wolves driving teeming sheep’.

In the 17th century, another historical chronicle, the Golden Summary, continued this depiction of wolves as threats. It also presented Grey Wolf as human, rather than an animal. From the Mongol Empire through to the Manchu-ruled Qing Empire (1636-1912), wolves were commonly seen as an enemy to humans. But though many religious rituals prayed for protection from the animals, or for the skills to hunt them – killing a wolf is said to generate khiimori, good luck – wolves were not always villains. Poems written by the Khalkha prince Tsogtu Taiji (1581-1637) included lines that invited sympathy for wolves and thieves, as both stole to survive. In the 19th century, the satirist Sangdag the Poet wrote ‘What the Wolf Encircled by the Hunt Said’. In the poem, a caught wolf pleads for mercy, admitting that he is a sinful and pitiful creature, but arguing that he had no choice but to eat other animals. An anonymous manuscript, ‘The Conversation between the Wolf and the Noble’, tells a similar story, although in this case the captured wolf and noble debate the wolf’s sins and the merits of sparing his life.

In most sympathetic texts, wolves were presented as pitiable creatures. This trope continued in Buddhist thought well into the 20th century. In the 1930s, the Panchen Lama, a major leader in Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhism, asked his compatriots not to hunt wolves, urging compassion for the sinful animal. Despite his pleas, wolf hunting continued. 

Enemies of the people

In 1921 Mongolian revolutionaries, supported by the Bolsheviks, rid their country of the occupying Chinese and White Russian forces. In 1924, the nation was renamed the Mongolian People’s Republic, becoming the second socialist country in the world. The government followed the socialist blueprint pioneered by the Soviet Union, but retained the mobile herding system that suited the Mongolian environment. Most economic reforms were delayed by a series of crises: civil war in the early 1930s, followed by Stalin-inspired purges of Buddhist monks, Buryat immigrants and dissidents towards the end of the decade before the outbreak of the Second World War. 

By the mid-1950s, the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party was sufficiently in control of the country to implement collectivisation. Party activists would confiscate individually held livestock to form collectives in which herders would work common livestock for a salary. Campaigns were launched to improve livestock production. Veterinarians worked to treat diseases; officials invested in infrastructure and policies to alleviate winter disasters (zud) and drought; the government pushed for wolf extermination.

Thus, a professional class of wolf hunters was introduced. These hunters had quotas of pelts to fulfil, receiving a salary and additional bounties for each pelt turned in. The value of the bounty depended on the sex and age of the wolf, with pregnant females and pups being the most valuable. 

Decorated and experienced hunters wrote handbooks and held conferences to share their knowledge. J. Damdin’s Notes of a Grizzled Hunter (1963) provides advice on how to track and kill wolves, concluding that ‘the work exterminating the enemy wolf is very important’. S. Luwsan’s Mongolian Hunter’s Notes (1986) includes practical advice: ‘Hunters must not drink vodka or smoke tobacco.’ After suggesting strategies for how to hunt wolves, Luwsan concludes by declaring the wolf a ‘very bad intentioned, darkly suspicious animal’. 

Before professionalisation, training had been passed from father to son. Older hunters often chastised younger hunters for their perceived lack of skill. But such criticisms were more than the age-old story of generational divide. Reverence for age and experience was propagated by the socialist government, despite the promise of revolutionary new ideas. Hunting was seen as Marxist labour (though Marx described it as the earliest stage in the evolution of societies). Most hunting strategies had long histories and were identical to those found in other countries, such as the United States. The wisdom of older hunters was highly valued.

By the book

Handbooks for hunters often began with a history of Mongolian hunting, supporting the idea that this labour was a valid form of Marxist production. This meant that in the early 1960s, while historians were being criticised by the government for their positive evaluations of Chinggis Khan and the Mongol Empire, handbooks continued to celebrate mentions of hunting in the Secret History, as well as in ‘superstitious’ religious texts. The Soviet Union was commended for its success in wolf extermination; so too were rival capitalist countries such as the US.

In the 1950s and 1960s, as part of the global push for wildlife conservation, the Mongolian government instituted protections for a number of endangered species, including the takhi (wild horse) and the yangir (ibex). Wolves, rather than being seen as part of the natural ecosystem, were blamed for eating endangered species. Of course, the real culprit was displacement by humans. Despite this, anti-wolf sentiment was spread by various books. MPR’s Game Animals (1969) warned that ‘the wolf causes immeasurable harm to our national economy’. Some books celebrated the methods of killing wolves, including the introduction of strong poisons from the USSR, specifically barium fluoride acetate. 

Like a wolf

Wolves soon became a common metaphor for wicked people. Like wolves, wealthy ‘class enemies’ preyed on poor herders. In the 1930s, the Russian linguist Nicholas Poppe recorded songs in various Buryat collectives, including one that connected wolves with kulaks, the rich exploiters who were among the enemies of collectivisation:

In the forest on the western mountain,
There will be no-ever present wolves.
All of us will form a commune;
There will be no rich kulaks.

The other class enemy in the Mongolian People’s Republic was the Buddhist clergy. During the socialist era, lamas and wolves – both said to be greedy and cruel – were targeted for extermination (ustgakh). Thousands of lamas were executed, their monasteries destroyed. In the post-socialist era, tales spread of monks surviving these bloody purges by living with wolves in their dens.

Yet there were some pro-wolf voices in socialist Mongolia. In the mid-1960s the author D. Namdag wrote a novella, The Howl of the Old Wolf. The protagonist is an old three-legged wolf who has survived years being hunted, clearly an avatar for Namdag, who was imprisoned twice. The old wolf lives with his daughter and her mate, but when the younger wolves feed on sheep, a professional hunter kills them. The old wolf howls, but receives no answer. Socialist censors deemed the novella subversive and banned it.

The future

Though their numbers decreased, wolves were never exterminated in Mongolia. With the end of socialism in 1991, the planned economy fell away, including quotas for wolf pelts. The state-directed persecution of wolves ended, but this did not mean the end of wolf hunting. Mongolian provinces still hold wolf hunts, with socialist-style bounties. In the capital, Ulaanbaatar, bounties are often offered for dead feral dogs, another holdover from socialism. Many Mongolians openly lament the increase in the wolf population that followed the end of professional hunters. But wolves are not the only problem facing Mongolian herders, whose livelihoods are threatened by mining and climate change. 

There are also an increasing number of pro-wolf voices. In Mongolia, pro-wolf books are sold alongside works by older hunters who worked for the socialist government. Gotowyn Akim’s Dog of Heaven: Truths and Myths of Blue Mongolia’s Blue Wolf combats prejudice using historic stories, such as lamas escaping purges with the help of wolves. Some promote American-style conservation efforts. But Akim and other pro-wolf voices are a minority, activists pushing back against dominant anti-wolf feeling.

Mongolians have a complicated relationship with animals and the environment. This was true during the imperial period, continued to be true under socialism, and remains true today. The romantic notion of Mongolians revering the wolves they live alongside is a fantasy. 

Kenneth Linden is an environmental historian of Mongolia.

Source: History Today Feed