May 22, 2020

Great Work, Gana!

One of Denver Zoo's Very Own Awarded Prestigious Honor from Mongolian Government


Last week, the President of Mongolia, Khaltmaagiin Battulga, issued a decree awarding our very own Gana Wingard – Denver Zoo’s Mongolia Program Director – with the high state decoration of Mongolia, the Order of the Polar Star. This is the highest civilian award given to foreign citizens, and is being granted to Gana in recognition of her significant contribution to wildlife conservation, leadership, strengthening environmental bilateral cooperation and building capacity in the next generation of wildlife conservationists for Mongolia. As one of the newest recipients, Gana joins an esteemed list of awardees including internationally renowned historians, health care providers and climate scientists, as well as prominent U.S. political figures such as Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Barack Obama.

With only five people per square mile, Mongolia – the country where Gana was born and raised – is the least densely populated on earth. For centuries, herding communities, native wildlife and domesticated livestock successfully shared resources in the vast, unfenced, undeveloped grasslands of the Gobi Steppe. In recent decades, however, Mongolia’s burgeoning democracy and free-market economy have paved the way for traditional nomadic herders to boost their livestock herd sizes. This increase has resulted in overgrazing as well as a higher risk of disease transmission between wildlife and domestic animals. Adding to these pressures, the arid steppe ecosystem has been experiencing severe drought for many years, and all of this together is leading to population declines for many of Mongolia’s wild species.

Ikh nart camp

Responding to the need for wildlife protection in this remote corner of the world, Denver Zoo launched a field conservation program in southeast Mongolia at Ikh Nart Nature Reserve in 1997.  It was that same year when Gana initially joined the Zoo team as a Program Coordinator. In 2012, following the completion of a Denver Zoo graduate fellowship and her second Master’s degree (she holds degrees in Ecology and Wildlife Biology), Gana became the zoo’s first Mongolia Program Director. With her keen scientific mind, expert organization skills, and strong sense of collaboration Gana has successfully guided the expansion of the zoo’s Mongolia field conservation program.

Under Gana’s devoted leadership, Denver Zoo has achieved incredible outcomes for wildlife in Mongolia. She is the principal investigator for several long-term research projects regarding Ikh Nart’s threatened animal residents such as argali sheep, gazelles and cinereous vultures. Results of these studies are used by Gana and her park administration colleagues to guide and prioritize actions park staff will take to continue protecting these and other wildlife species. For example, 10 years of zoo-led research demonstrated that important wildlife habitat (such as vulture nesting sites) remained unprotected, so Gana worked with partners and government officials to expand Ikh Nart’s boundaries and add smaller protected areas surrounding the park. This conservation action nearly doubled the size of the contiguous protected habitat from 163,000 to 300,000 acres.

2018 Mongolia Team Photo

To deepen capacity for wildlife conservation in Mongolia, Gana’s program has not only provided professional development for park rangers, it has also supported over 150 undergraduate and graduate students in their pursuit of conservation-related career paths.  Seventy five percent of those students are now employed as researchers, as teachers, within the environmental arms of the Mongolian government, or as conservationists. And program reach does not stop with college students. Over 2,500 local primary and secondary students have been engaged in the zoo’s education programs or eco-clubs, and more than 1,000 local people have participated in community events at Ikh Nart.

Over the past two decades, Gana has been an instrumental force in transforming Ikh Nart Nature Reserve from an insufficiently resourced “paper park” into a United Nations-recognized model protected area. Previous awards recognizing her significant role include the 2015 Distinguished Environmentalist Award from the Mongolia Ministry for Nature and Green Development, as well as the 2018 Emerging Scientist Award from our partners at the Earthwatch Institute. We are truly in rare company!

Please join the Denver Zoo team in congratulating Ms. Gana Wingard as one of Mongolia’s most newly minted Order of the Polar Star award recipients.

Gana Hero_3


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