Alejandro Llop typed a sentence in Google one day that ultimately led him across the Gobi Desert in Mongolia and changed his way of seeing. A journey to document the Camels of the Gobi Desert and the foundation created to protect and breed the endangered animal.
Alejandro Llop | SPAIN
A lot of my work as a photographer is focussed around working on projects related to the environment in which I usually collaborate with a foundation to develop a body of work on a specific topic.
I still remember when I typed into Google: “Conservation in Mongolia”. — That was the beginning of a story that I will not forget for the rest of my life.
As I started reading about Mongolia I was drawn immediately to the Gobi Desert and the threatened species calling the vast sandy lands home. The Gobi Desert is among the largest and most important deserts in the world. It is surrounded by the Altai Mountains and the steppes of Mongolia to the north; the plateau of Tibet to the southwest; and the North China Plain to the southeast.
While reading I came to a page called “Wild Camels“. At that time, I had no idea about camels. Little by little I investigated, and I became more interested in the subject until I decided to write to the foundation behind the page, the Wild Camel Protection Foundation. Two months later I was in London having a meeting with the president and founder of the organization Mr. John Hare. Just in case I was not surprised by everything that was happening, John arranged a meeting at the Royal Geographic Society in London. After showing him my work and talking for half an hour he asked me if I would be willing to go to the desert in September (at that time it was May) and of course, I said yes. My goal would be to learn and document the foundation’s work in Mongolia, creating audio-visual content for their marketing efforts.
We shook hands and I went back to Spain, to my quiet house on the outskirts of Valencia.
On the 1st of September, I left my home to travel for 15 days into the Gobi Desert. We arrived in Ulaanbaatar and spent a night there to then take a pair of 4×4’s and drive for two days to the Gobi Desert where the breeding centre of the WCPF was located.
During the 4×4 journey from Ulaanbaatar to the breeding centre, I only met a small village called Bayantooroi where I spent a couple of nights. There I met people who lived in a totally different way from what I had known until that moment. In Bayantooroi, you better not get sick or have a serious accident, because you are two days from any hospital. It’s an incredible and isolated place.
If I could surmise my lasting memories from the desert, it would be the immense plains, the variety of rocks in the different ranges and the number of stars that can be seen during at night.
Sometimes it was even difficult to distinguish the constellations from the many bright stars slowly dancing across the immense skies.
That same brightness illuminated the landscape, even with no moon; Something I had never seen before. The milky way was visible to the naked eye, the photo has practically no editing, only some contrast.
The people of the desert were extremely friendly and open with me and always offered a place in their Ger (A typical house for nomadic Mongolians), food or whatever you needed.
For most of my trip, I was living in this Ger, erected at the foot of a sacred mountain named “Mother Mountain”, a place where a Mongolian monk lived, apart from the little society that existed in Mongolia. I was told the monk lived in a cave for more than 15 years and was shot by the Russians when he was discovered. Climbing the mountain and visiting the cave is a kind of ritual for many Buddhist Mongols.
Many Altai people will never have an opportunity to climb this mountain, so it was something that I valued and respected deeply.
Mother Mountain is like getting on Mars, otherworldly I had never seen anything like it. The colours and textures of the rocks were incredibly beautiful. When the sun began to set and last light illuminated the terrain, it transformed the lands, unlike anything I had seen.
I love the anticipation you feel when going to see wildlife in their wilderness homes. You feel a little nervous, imagining what it will be like and what might happen.
When taking pictures of an animal I believe you always feel a special connection. It is difficult to explain and of course, it depends on the person; for me, it is something unique.
When a wild animal stops and looks at me, I feel I can read in their eyes the same curiosity that I held for them. — Knowing that these camels were in danger of extinction made this moment a sad privilege.
These experiences further instilled my desire to go back to Spain and publish these photos, generating awareness where I could. Unfortunately, a camel lost in Mongolia is not as attractive as a tiger or a polar bear and several organizations in favour of the protection of the species weren’t interested in publishing the photos.
The Great Gobi A is a strictly protected area in southern Mongolia. The land is mostly made up of small stone dunes in which herbs grow. The camels graze on these herbs. They are not dunes like we can find in the Sahara, the Gobi Desert is mostly rocky. With the ever-beaming sun, the terrain is painted a golden hue that perfectly camouflages the camels.
I loved my experience at the Gobi Desert. Learning about what WCPF does has been amazing and hanging out with the locals was a highlight too.
I have to admit that my biggest personal challenge was adjusting to the local diet. I do not eat meat, and in Mongolia, there is only meat. You wake up in the morning to the smell of boiled meat. For breakfast, you will have meat with a little soup, for lunch, snacks and dinners the same. Add to that the vodka they so kindly offer you and it’s a punch in your stomach if you’re not used to it. Of course, I had to eat meat (for education and to not die of starvation) and luckily, I only vomited for two days.
My time in the Gobi Desert was undoubtedly an experience that changed my way of seeing spaces and understanding how immense and vast a place can be.
Because I don’t like the thought that the future generations won’t have the things that I get to see. The animals, the plants, the habitats.. – I think it’s very important that we all do our bit to protect what we have around us.
If you are considering travelling to Mongolia, or have any questions about my time there and the WCPF, feel free to get in touch, I would be happy to share what knowledge I can.
A landscape photographer with a keen interest in outdoor life and conservation, Alejandro strives to create his work in the most natural and uncontrived ways he can. Inspired by the literature of David Thoreau and the photography of Alex Strohl, Chris Burkard and Jeff Johnson. Alejandro is a curious adventure seeker passionate about environmental conservation and the inhabitants of the lands he traverses.
The Wild Camel Protection Foundation
The WCPF, a United Kingdom registered charity, with Dr. Jane Goodall DBE as its Honorary Life Patron, was established in 1997. It is also registered in the USA as a non-profit organisation. The sole aim of the Wild Camel Protection Foundation is to protect the critically endangered wild camel (Camelus Ferus) and its habitat in the fragile and unique desert ecosystems in the Gobi desert in north-west China and south-west Mongolia.
The WCPF established a captive wild camel breeding programme in Mongolia in 2003, the only programme of its kind in the world. Today the centre has successfully released bred camel’s back into the Great Gobi Strictly Protected Area. (Gobi A)
The herdsmen of the centre work throughout the year taking care of the camels, throughout the freezing temperatures of winter and in the warm summers. During the winter they are given a large amount of hay and shelter in the centre and during the warmer months, the camels graze freely in the protected areas of the Gobi A. You can read more about the Wild Camel Protection Foundation efforts in Mongolia here.