By Kofi Opoku-Ansah
In September 2015, photographer Kofi Opoku-Ansah and his girlfriend Kim traveled to Mongolia on Earthwatch’s Wildlife of the Mongolian Steppe expedition. Kofi’s favorite moments include radio collaring and releasing argali sheep (a male/female pair were named after Kofi and Kim), working alongside Mongolian researchers, students, and horsemen to achieve critical conservation goals, and, on a very personal level, proposing to his girlfriend of four years underneath a rocky mountain near the camp. (Spoiler alert: she said yes!)
A Photographer’s Dream Realized
I’d never been to Asia and was seeking adventure, so joining an Earthwatch expedition in Mongolia was both far enough from my home in London and adventurous enough to meet this need. Given my love for animals and desire to give something back to nature, Earthwatch’s Wildlife of the Mongolian Steppe expedition seemed to fit every piece of my ideal expedition.
After a year of planning, reading, and researching about Mongolia, the day finally came
for my girlfriend, Kim, and I to travel to Mongolia for our expedition, where we would focus on capturing and tagging argali sheep.
The excitement was overwhelming when we finally reached Mongolia after a 12-hour flight and transfer in Moscow. A few days after arriving in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, we met our team members for a casual dinner, introduction and briefing before our trip to the camp at Ikh Nart Nature Reserve where the expedition would take place. Traveling on old Russian trains from Ulaanbaatar for seven hours south into the semi stepped Gobi, followed by an hour drive to camp was a nice experience, yet it was only the beginning of our adventure!
Our 12 days at the camp in Ikh Nart was incredible, and we would love to volunteer again in the near future. Meeting people from all walks of life who are working for the same cause was something truly special. Our days consisted of team briefings, cinereous vulture and snake sightings, argali and ibex capture, and walking transects, to name just a few. The organization on this project was flawless. The teamwork and effort by the volunteers and researchers was inspiring.
Working side-by-side with Mongolian volunteer students, scientists from the Denver Zoo, and the Mongolian horsemen proved how greatness can be achieved when working with people with the same conservation goals. In moments like these, language barriers are broken and determination for success becomes the prime focus on everyone’s mind. This is especially true when it involves making a difference in the lives of endangered species.
Our goal as a team was to capture at least five argali and ibexes to be radio collared. Our typical day involved driving to a dedicated area, setting two nets parallel to each other that spanned across 160 meters, and then taking positions to hide (sometimes for hours) whilst the horsemen went in search of the argali and drove them towards the nets. When we caught an argali, a group of us would take blood samples, weigh, record temperatures, attach radio collars, provide water to cool the animals down, and finally release them in a span of only 5-15 minutes.
Scientists, volunteers, and local staff, including skilled Mongolian horsemen, capture argali sheep by driving them towards nets. They then quickly tag them, monitor their health, and release them back into the wild.
This process required great planning, strategy and cooperation from all team members. There were many idle moments with no action, but with determination and persistence we successfully captured and tagged our target of five argali and ibex within a week.
The Surprise Proposal
Soon after arriving in Mongolia, Kim and I celebrated our fourth anniversary. And I had a surprise in mind for her. For days, I had been checking and double-checking on the safety of an engagement ring I had brought with me so I could propose to Kim in Mongolia. One morning before our daily tasks, Kim and I went for a walk. Without ever thinking about the outcome if she was to say no, I went ahead and proposed, and with everything I had imagined, she said yes!
We announced the news to the rest of the team during lunch, and received many compliments and well wishes from our team members.
Experience of a Lifetime
My experience on this trip far exceeded my expectations and there were many highlights. Getting engaged, celebrating my birthday, having an argali sheep named after me, seeing a grey wolf, meeting and working with the Mongolian horsemen, going disco dancing in the middle of the Gobi – these are just a few examples.
But the opportunity to do something worthwhile has to be one of the greatest highlights in my life so far.
Many have asked ‘Why Mongolia of all places?’ My answer is, ‘Why not?’ Mongolia is one of the most beautiful countries in the world, with its vast lands, nature and archaeology. It is a place full of treasures.
The argali conservation project is a really special one. The researchers and volunteers who take part and dedicate their time and interest in it have worked so hard and have contributed so much – they have made a massive impact in the preservation of these endangered species. I recommend it in so many ways, and I can’t wait to go back in the near future!
Kofi and Kim were so moved by their experience that they now donate 10 percent of the proceeds from their silk scarf business to the Ikh Nart Nature Reserve in Mongolia.