Mongolia Travel: Roaming with the Last Wild Horses

  • From left: a herd of takhis grazing on a bluff in Hustai National Park; a stallion guarding his harem.

    From left: a herd of takhis grazing on a bluff in Hustai National Park; a stallion guarding his harem.

  • edit this

    edit this

Click image to view full size

Above: A young takhi taking refuge from the mid-day sun.

Once extinct in the wild, the takhi is making a comeback in the Mongolian steppe

Story and photographs by Ron Gluckman

The pitted road to Hustai National Park leads deep into the grasslands of central Mongolia. Bouncing around inside the van is a group of scientists, en route to a climate-change conference at the park. But the conversation is all about horses—like how children here learn to ride as soon as they can walk, or how every summer, horse racing tops the bill at the Naadam (or “Three Manly Sports”) festival, Mongolia’s answer to the Olympics. And the national brew, airag, isn’t beer, but a frothy concoction of fermented mare’s milk.

There’s good reason why everyone has equines on the mind: Hustai is a sanctuary for horses. Not just any horses, mind you, but a rare wild breed known in Mongolia as the takhi, and elsewhere as Przewalski’s horse. Outside zoos, Hustai is one of the few places in the world where you can see these endangered animals.

At the park, Hustai’s tourism manager, Tserendeleg Dashpuren, pulls me away from the conference attendees and puts me in a four-wheel-drive jeep. Soon we’re negotiating a series of dirt switchbacks up a mountainside, bouncing into craters that jolt me from my seat. Finally, we park at a small clearing. Scrabbling through thickets of prickly bushes, Tserendeleg guides me to a huge table rock. Here he stops, holding a finger to his lips, bidding me to be silent. A moment later, I hear them.

Braying like a pack of mules below us are nearly two dozen takhis, about a tenth of the park’s entire population. Stockier and shorter-legged than domesticated horses, they have thick, dark manes and a compact build that calls to mind the proportions of a donkey. Wildlife experts have long debated whether they are a species or subspecies of horse, but they are unquestionably unique. All other horses have 64 chromosomes, while the takhi have 66.

“The name means ‘holy’ in Mongolian,” Tserendeleg says as we watch the animals graze among the rocks. “All Mongolians love horses, but these ones are special. Everyone dreams of seeing them.”

Between 1992 and 2000, 84 takhis were reintroduced to Hustai National Park from zoos and captive- breeding programs in Europe. Today, the number stands at nearly 250, thanks to birthrates that have at least doubled over the last decade

For much of the last century, though, that’s all Mongolians had: dreams, and legends about this almost mythical horse, declared extinct in the wild 42 years ago. But thanks to a rare example of successful large-species reintroduction, the takhi once again roams its original range.

“This is one of the world’s great wildlife stories,” I’m later told by Piet Wit, a conservationist who worked with the Dutch groups that brought the takhi back to Mongolia in 1992. Later, he took over as project manager. After all these decades, the sight of them still inspires him. “This is a great story for Mongolia, and for the world’s conservation efforts.”

Like the Mongol empire itself, the takhi once ranged across a vast territory, from East Asia to the borderlands of Europe. Nobody knows how many animals there were at their peak, or exactly when or why their population began its drastic decline; most opinion centers on climate change and loss of habitat to human encroachment.

“For centuries they shared the grasslands with pastoral nomadic societies,” says Melissa Songer, of the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., who has worked on takhi reintroductions in the westernmost Chinese province of Xinjiang. “But as the human populations increased, so did the pressures on the horse habitat.”

By the 1870s, the rarity of sightings only accelerated the takhi’s demise. Descriptions of the animal by Russian explorer Nikolai Przewalski ignited a frenzy of efforts to trap the horse, which didn’t take well to human contact or captivity. Entire herds were slaughtered to capture a single foal. Few survived the journey to Europe, where they were sold to private zoos. By the middle of the 20th century, they had all but disappeared in the wild, with the last sighting in Mongolia in the 1960s.

This has been the script for so many stories of extinction. Yet ironically, the very zoos that took the takhi from the wild are rewriting this horse story with what appears to be a happy ending. Reintroductions of the horses have now taken place in several sites in Mongolia, as well as in China and Kazakhstan.

This was only possible thanks to a coordinated breeding program among zoos, where 1,500 of the horses survive. However, all are descended from about a dozen ancestors, making for a critically threatened gene pool.

There are other hurdles ahead for the world’s last wild horse. Transportation costs from zoos are enormous, making countries like Mongolia dependent on aid to finance the endeavor. Interbreeding with other horses is yet another concern, necessitating isolated reintroduction sites. But an early transfer of takhis to a remote area in the Gobi Desert resulted in substantial losses, while the harsh weather and predatory wolves in Xinjiang, says Songer, require the takhis there to be corralled each winter. Mongolia’s Hustai National Park may well represent the greatest hope for a true reintroduction in natural conditions.

A 50,000-hecatare swath of rolling hills, forest, and grassland, Hustai, 100 kilometers southwest of Ulaanbaatar, was established as a preserve for takhis brought in by an ambitious Dutch-financed project in the 1990s.  Between 1992 and 2000, 84 animals were reintroduced from zoos and captive-breeding programs in Europe. Today, the number stands at nearly 250, thanks to birthrates that have at least doubled over the last decade.

“We still know so little about them,” says Tserendeleg when I ask about takhis’ behavior in the wild. He tells me they have formed herds comprised largely of mares controlled by a large stallion, while young bachelors travel together in bands. “It’s complex,” he adds with a shrug.

Back at park headquarters, I meet Bandi Namkhai, the director. He tells me that Hustai’s horse preservation program is now funded largely by visitors, including 8,000 foreign tourists a year, many of whom stay overnight in traditional Mongolian gers. The park’s draws include endemic herds of red deer—also endangered—as well as dozens of species of other mammals. But the takhi has always been the superstar attraction.

“The population is stable now,” he says proudly. “I think we can easily have 400 to 500 horses within a few years.”

Bandi recalls the first arrival of takhis in Ulaanbaatar in 1992, in terms reminiscent of The Beatles reception in New York on their first American tour. “When they came, huge crowds packed the airport,” he says. “People were screaming with joy. We had been waiting for this for years. Everyone was happy.”

He remembers another day equally well. “I met the guy who saw the last of the original wild takhis. That was September 16, 1968. He later came to visit us in Hustai. He was so pleased to see the horses back.”

Now, all Mongolians, and the rest of the world, can share the thrill.

Originally appeared in the April/May 2011 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Home Again, On the Range”)

Share this Article