Thursday, 25 February 2016

Murder of a Mongolian Conservationist

Sumbe Tomorsukh- Martyred saving the Snow Leopard.
   Protecting this snow-leopard cub, Sumbe found the strength and passion we need to save our planet.

  His bereaved father, Tomorsukh, is a Forest Ranger who rides a reindeer and tracks down poachers along the shores of Lake Hovsgol in Northern Mongolia. 
Young Sumbe's own work, saving the ibex and the snow leopard, took him a thousand kilometres South to the arid mountains of the Gobi desert. He was a ‘mountain climbing machine’- routinely tackling sharp inclines carrying 50 kilograms of water and salt on his back, while holding a massive piece of ice in his gloved hands, to restock the camera-traps his team set up to monitor prey abundance and population dynamics.

    The reindeer, like the Mongolian pony, is an intelligent and loyal friend. Moreover its antlers aren’t purely decorative. But Sumbe wasn’t riding a reindeer, like his Forest Ranger father that fateful day when he was attacked. He was mounted on a light motor-bike coming down a steep slope where the path narrowed between two rocks when suddenly two masked men jumped forward brandishing knives. He had no choice but to carry on and trust to his momentum to get himself clear. He received 3 wounds- a 4.5cm deep gash below the solar plexus and two slightly shallower cuts on the left and right side of his stomach. He was lucky to have survived. 

     Luck can run out. Even the leopard knows when it is time to run away. Yet Sumbe did not give up and leave Mongolia.

  Seven months later Sumbe's body was recovered from Hovsgol lake. His grieving father was shocked to find, almost immediately, a mobile phone in his car even though it had been previously searched by the Police Detectives who had blandly assured him that his son had committed suicide while drunk.  

 The mobile phone had a chilling voice recording on it. In a tone of quiet desperation, Sumbe blames the Police for not investigating the knife attack on him and instead spinning old wives' tales to explain away the incident. He says, in a tone which is bitter but calm and utterly bereft of histrionics, that to protect his family he is letting the gangsters win because they have all the power and money for the moment. But they are low people. Despicable creatures. At this point there is a voice of someone saying ‘shut up!’ and, on audio analysis, another voice uttering an expletive. Perhaps the gangsters thought their voices would not register on the recording. Or perhaps they knew it wouldn't matter. The fix was in.

  Previously, on the long drive to Hovsgol, from Ulan Bator, Sumbe’s car had stopped in front of a CC camera. He got out of the car alone and walked in a circle so as to be visible to the camera. The intention, clearly, was to show he was driving alone to Hovsgol. The only problem is that analysis of the shadows cast in the footage shows that he had got into the back seat not the front. He wasn’t driving the car. Once again, the perfunctory manner of the frame-up is what makes it so chilling. Sumbe wasn't yet a high official. Thus it was important, not just to bump him off but to do it in so deliberately a slovenly fashion as to showcase how easily the bumping off of an activist can be passed off as suicide.  

  Sumbe Tomorsukh had just turned 27 when he was killed. He had completed his Masters Degree and already co-authored several well regarded Scientific papers in his field. He had attended specialist courses in India and America, and was due to come to the U.K this year to further hone his skills and expertise.

  Yet, according to the Mongolian police, Sumbe was a maladjusted fellow who, for some mysterious reason, kept bothering them with complaints that he had been stabbed in the neck (in May 2014) or, later on, kidnapped and threatened (in January 2015) both times in the City of Ulan Bator, and then stabbed three times in the stomach in the Tost Mountains, before finally being drowned in Hovsgol. 

  It is completely ridiculous to suggest that some ‘Mining Mafia’ exists which threatens or bribes Conservationists into giving ‘no objection’ certificates for Exploratory or Operational Licenses for multi billion World Bank funded projects involving some of the most powerful companies in the world. Sumbe was just unlucky. The attack in the Tost mountains could plausibly have been dismissed as the work of 'Ninja miners'- i.e. illegal prospectors- and the attacks which happened in the Capital city explained away as unrelated acts of hooliganism. But, since the long drive to Hovsgol and subsequent drowning has been attributed to drunken melancholia, the official line is to say that the other attacks which Sumbe reported- even the one for which his Snow Leopard team-mates were material witnesses- never happened at all. With Monty Pythonesque humour, the Police explained that they looked for foot prints and tyre tracks on bare rock, not the places where snow was piled up and the escape vehicle likely to be parked. Strategic stupidity, in the West, is a tactic of resistance associated with 'Good Soldier Svejk'. It has a far more ominous and Orwellian ring in countries with a Stalinist past.

  Still, because Mongolia is a genuine multi-party democracy and because its people really care about their marvellous, but fragile, natural heritage, Sumbe Tomorsukh's sacrifice will not go in vain. 
  Slowly but steadily, Sumbe's father, is uncovering the tracks of those behind this dastardly crime. Not so as to exact a personal Revenge- bygones are bygones- but to help catalyse needful Reform of a Society which could too easily cannibalize itself, the fragile eco-systems which gives it life, in the name of some bogus Economic ideology. Already, a detailed TV documentary on Sumbe's murder has been broadcast. Social Media has enabled young people, already enraged at the rape and plunder of the environment, which adversely impacts livelihoods now and for future generations, to find a rallying point and campaigning issue. The Government may find legal excuses to ban a protest videos by the pop-opera group Uvertura, but they can't un-ring that clarion they first sounded in 2010. The film 'Wolf Totem' directed by Jean Jacques Annaud (of '7 Years in Tibet' fame), based on Lu Jiamin's (aka Jiang Rong) Chinese language book has found an eager audience even amongst alienated urban youth. The wolf, as apex predator, preserved fragile grasslands which might otherwise collapse and fuel apocalyptic dust-storms such as those with threaten Beijing. Interestingly, Mongol youth seem to understand the author's message (he was imprisoned in the Tiananmen aftermath) much better than certain 'Western' vaunted aesthetes and 'engaged intellectuals' who dismissed it as 'fascist' or woodenly 'didactic'. Many, nay most, of these young people have been driven into the Cities only recently because of the double failure of de-regulated Markets and soi disant Democratic Parliamentary Musical Chairs. Like the 'Ninja Miners' who bitterly regret poisoning their own ancestral source of sustenance, the marmots can destroy the integrity of their own habitat if they are not kept in check.
   Wolf and Marmot, Leopard and Ibex, Markets and Regulation, Democracy and the Rule of Law- the one dies without the other.
  Sumbe wasn't trying to make pets out of the little snow leopard cubs he so often rescued. He was acting out of something larger than love, more merciful than compassion, something as vast as the azure sky, which yet is as intimate and implacable as the grief which unites his beloved parents at what Death has divided from them now.

 One day, it may be, Sumbe Tomorsukh  will have a living monument equal to that of the great champion of Multi Party Democracy, S. Zorig- who was murdered in his home in 1998.

  That murder remains unsolved, but, at least, it was acknowledged to be murder. What is happening to the fragile eco-systems of the Gobi is not less than the Chronicles of a Genocide foretold- a planetary disaster emerging plutocracies ignore at their peril.
  Sumbe, like his father, understood very well what role apex predators play in fragile eco-systems. The ancient Sages expressed it thus- 'where the leopard is endangered, the forest can not survive. When the forest disappears so do the rains and rivers. Where waters fail, famine follows.'

  Sumbe was repeatedly attacked and threatened. He could have kept quiet or gone away and earned laurels as an Ivy League, if not Ivory Tower, Acadmician. He did not do so because he understood this was not a story about a single greedy company or a clique of corrupt kleptocrats. The issue here is centralized control of water- the diversion of rivers across vast distances so as to create a mirage of wealth- in the service of a Chrematistic swindle that couldn't take in a child.  

  Sumbe's blood was shed in the arid region where he had himself carried water to ensure the survival of an endangered cubs. He was drowned near his own home in the water rich north. There is a sort of twisted sub-text to the way his murder was staged. Surely all we need to do is to spend a few billion piping water from one place to another so as to extract ever increasing dividends without paying any price in terms of the loss of the cuddlier type of animal? Once everybody signs up to the new grand design, everything will be fine- we won't have any more 'Ninja Miners' poisoning the environment- big Corporations, meshing with each other seamlessly, will take care of everything smoothly and neatly.

  There is a problem with this story- a problem Mongolians understand all too well. Commodity markets crash regularly. In the boom years a tiny elite is enriched beyond the dreams of avarice with no trickledown- then, when the bust comes, the same Corporations morph and downsize creating a class of impoverished 'Ninja Miners' symbiotic with the State's retreat to cosmetically Modern Metropolitan enclaves for a spot of old fashioned Manorial Rent extraction.

  Big irrigation schemes, and grand hydrological projects- Communist or Capitalist- promise much but deliver little. In the end, they divert water from those who use it efficiently, that is sustainably, to vested interests who squander it senselessly. Democracy, Transparency, Accountability- these are as necessary as water. Without them, livelihoods and eco-systems will be destroyed in an irreparable manner. Economists and Evolutionary Biologists are beginning to understand that 'regret minimization' not 'profit maximization' is what underpins stable, sustainable, equilibria in the real world where you have to expect the unexpected. Sumbe learnt this lesson at his father's knee even before his Academic success. It is time for Pundits and Policymaker's to admit that killing golden geese doesn't work out well for anybody.

 Brutal men shed Sumbe's blood to secure the mirage of wealth. But, by shedding the blood of a young innocent who carried water to helpless cubs- they may just have triggered a mounting flood of protest and indignation which will cleanse the Augean stables of corrupt politics and corporate wrongdoing in Ulan Bator as surely as S. Zorig's blood sacrifice established Mongolia firmly upon the path of Democracy and the Rule of Law.

                                        Sumbe's father 

Father & Son- fighting the good fight.

1) Sumbe's father is featured in 'Sons of Taiga' the official video of the Lake Hovsgol Conservancy & Mongol Ecology. (this has English subtitles)
His picture is taken from the Snow Leopard Trust website. 

2) The two parts of a Mongolian language documentary on the murder of Sumbe can be found here-

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