Saving a Wild Horse

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Wild Przewalski Horses grazing at Hustain Nuruu Steppe Reserve. (Photo by Robert Peck)

After six weeks and thousands of miles of driving through Mongolia’s vast territory, I am struck by both the timeless qualities of the country and the changes it  has gone through since my first visit in 1994.

The shifts in climate and weather patterns that the herders have been reporting throughout my trip are beyond their control, but the problems of overgrazing that we have seen are a direct result of the altered political and economic climate in Ulaan Baatar.  Since the collapse of the Soviet-dominated socialist government in 1990, the herd sizes of sheep, goats, horses, yak, and cattle have grown exponentially throughout Mongolia.  Though reduced by periodic “zuds” (deadly winter die-offs), the livestock numbers here are still well above where they were in Socialist times and, in many parts of the country, well above healthy and sustainable levels.

The difference between overgrazed and healthy steppe grassland is immediately apparent when one enters the Hustain Nuruu Steppe Reserve 100 kilometers  southwest of the capital.  I have purposely saved this visit for the end of my trip because what has happened here represents one of Mongolia’s great conservation success stories.

The reserve, now a national park, is best known as the place that supports the largest herd of wild Przewalski’s horses in the world.  By protecting the area from overuse and hunting to make a safe environment for these rare horses, park officials have also preserved a habitat that sustains healthy populations of marmot, Asiatic Red Deer, Mongolian Steppe Gazelle, a small wild cat called a manul, wolf, lynx, and a large variety of birds.  With livestock excluded from the park, the grasses are tall and lush in late July, and the wildflowers are spectacular.

Established in 1992, the park was chosen as the ideal place to introduce the “takhi,” the once abundant wild horse of Europe and Central Asia that became extinct in the wild in the 1960s.  Named for the Polish-born explorer Nikolai Przewalski  (1839-1888) who discovered remnants of the ancient species living in Mongolia at the end of the nineteenth century, the Przewalksi’s Horse, known locally as the “takhi,” is the only truly wild horse in the world.  It is not a mustang or feral domestic  horse as found in the United States and Australia, but a distinct species that differs from the domestic  horse in appearance and even in its DNA.  (It  has two extra chromosomes.)

Because of hunting and habitat loss, wild populations of the horse declined rapidly in the early 20th century.  Fortunately, some live animals were collected and kept in zoos and private menageries in Europe, but by the end of World War II, even this captive population was down to 11 animals worldwide.  Miraculously, the species was kept from extinction through a careful breeding program in Poland and the Netherlands.  Over time, other countries, including the United States, helped in the effort to create a viable captive population.

In 1992, a group of 15 horses were brought to Mongolia from the Netherlands to be released back into the wild.  When I first visited the reserve two years later, a second group of 15 animals had just been introduced.  No one was sure if the effort would be successful, but with support from the Dutch government, Mongolia biologists proved that the horse was strong enough to survive in the wild.

Between 1992 and 2000, a total of 84 animals were brought to Hustain Nuruu from captive breeding stocks around the world.  Their reintroduction to the wild was a tremendous success.  “We now have 260 takhi in the reserve,” the park director, Bandi, tells me as we look out over the rolling ridges of the 50,000 hectare reserve.  “Fifty foals were born this year, of which 40 survive,” he reports with understandable pride.

With this tremendous growth in the population, the park will soon reach its maximum carrying capacity of 500 wild horses.  Just what will happen then, no one knows.  Perhaps the park will be expanded, or another one created to host the overflow.  It will be a nice problem to have for a country that prides itself on its horse-based culture.  It is wonderful to see the iconic “takhi” doing so well.

The horse’s survival is not only a boost to Mongolia’s national identity and pride, but it has been a tremendous boon to the nation’s economy as well.  The two ger camps associated with the park are both filled to capacity with overnight guests throughout the summer.  There are many more visitors who make the easy day trip from Ulaan Baatar.  The horses thus draw thousands of visitors each year.  The modest $5 per visitor admission fees add up to significant revenue for Mongolia’s chronically underfunded park system.

Given the number of cars and busses crowding the park headquarters at the time of our visit, we are fortunate to have several hours alone with the horses.  While the other park visitors are enjoying a hot meal at the ger camp near the entrance, we venture off on one of the reserve’s less-used roads.  Within 15 minutes we happen upon one of the several takhi herds that have distributed themselves around the park.  They are right on the road, and so we have a wonderful, close look at these rare survivors of an earlier time.  They look back at us, as from the walls of the caves in Europe, unaware of how close they came to joining their contemporaries, the mammoths and mastodons, in vanishing at the end of the last ice age.

If Mongolia’s other conservation efforts – to save the snow leopard, the Gobi Bear, the Argali Sheep and the Ibex – are as successful as this one, then its future as a haven for wildlife will be very bright indeed.  Mongolians have long prided themselves in the claim that Genghis Kahn created the first conservation laws.  It would be wonderful to think that that legacy might continue to grow and strengthen in the years to come.  The success at Hustain Nuruu gives me hope that it will.