Back from the Brink

Nearly extinct, the world's first horse, as pictured on pre-historic cave murals, is running free once more in the great Mongolian steppes. The rescue of the Przewalski horse is a remarkable tale.

By Ron Gluckman / Mongolia

"AT FIRST, THERE WAS NO SOUND, just a deep and striking silence. Then, the sound of hoofs, faint, but growing closer. Finally, a collective sigh of approval, and then applause.

It was difficult to gauge which was more startling: the sigh, the clapping or our first sight of the odd horse with the bristly mane. In the desolate expanse of the Mongolian plain, any sign of life can be uplifting, yet the reaction from my Mongol companions was a shock.

The uninitiated might think that they hadn't seen a horse before. Anyone enduring a month in Mongolia knows otherwise. After drinking gallons of fermented mare's milk, the potent local liquor, and dabbing saddle sores at night, I had gained a painful appreciation of what it means to live in a land where horses outnumber people.

Mongols revere horses, which provide transportation, clothing and food for the nomads. Yet, awe over a horse isn't easily inspired.

Of course, this was no ordinary specimen. None of my Mongolian companions had seen such a steed. "But we have heard of it, all our life," explained my guide, Ariunbat. Then, he grabbed my arm and, in a rare expression of emotion, added, "I have even dreamed about it."

Everybody in Mongolia is talking about the Takhi. Formerly extinct here, the father of all horses is once again roaming his native land.

And it's quite a celebratory sight, too. Standing on a hilltop, the breeze caressing his long mane, this short, stocky horse stopped on the crest of the hill, watching his mares and foals. His color is caramel, topped by a dark brown mane that stands straight up, with punk-like perfection. Dark hair also runs down his muscular legs.

Then the horses dart down into the canyon, as wild as the wind, happy to be back roaming the Mongolian steppes.

The Takhi certainly appeared more at home on the range than in the world's zoos, where they have languished for decades. Watching them run free, I felt the same admiration as the ancients, who detailed the Takhi in countless pre-historic cave pictures.

The Takhi, believed to be the ancestor of all horses on Earth, returned to Mongolia last summer in the first phase of a worldwide wildlife reintroduction project that will last long into the next century. A dozen animals were airlifted from Holland and the Ukraine in one of the most ambitious horse projects ever attempted.

Eventually, the program may involve thousands of horses and two more reserves in Mongolia, as well as refuges in Kazakhstan and China, once part of the wild horse's original domain.

"It's all very emotional," says Fulvio Cinquini, an equestrian writer from Italy's Cavalli Cavalieri (Horses and Horsemen magazine), who traveled to Mongolia to observe the release last July. "In terms of science, this is extremely important, to return any species to the wild, where it has become extinct. But this animal is also a symbol, not only of Mongolia, but of a certain kind of freedom. This is a moment of good sense for human kind, to repair a horrible mistake."

The mistake, as he calls it, wasn't entirely the fault of man. The fate of the world's oldest species of horse was already set in stone long before its descendents crossed the Atlantic Ocean to proliferate throughout both American continents. By then, the Takhi had already been decimated across Asia and Europe by hunting, and driven from its grazing grounds by competition from domesticated livestock.

From the grassy plains of ancient Mongolia, the Takhi retreated into increasingly barren areas, eventually finding refuge around springs in the outskirts of the inhospitable Gobi desert, where the last Takhi sightings were recorded in 1969. Afterwards, the beautiful beast seemed destined for mythology.

However, this horse's tale could have a happy ending thanks to a script started a century before. Word of the mysterious wild horse reached the czar of Russia, who sent Polish explorer Colonel Nicolai Przewalski to search for signs of the species during three expeditions across Central Asia and one across Siberia. Although Przewalski may never have sighted a living specimen, his reports spurred on other adventurers, who captured scores of the Takhi in later expeditions.

The consequences might well seem appalling. The dwindling number of adult horses were slain to snare their offspring, and many died in transit to collectors in Europe. Scores were slaughtered for every animal that eventually reached its destination.

The surviving horses were kept in private preserves, most notably in Askania Novia, in the Ukraine, Woburn Abbey, in England, and in Hamburg, Germany. An estimated 53 horses survived the treacherous journey to European zoos, which often took over a year.

Breeding in captivity proved difficult, but hundreds of the animals were living at the outset of World War II. Only 30 horses survived the war. However, the world's entire stock of the Takhi, now numbering over 1,000 in parks worldwide, can be traced to 13 horses.

Called Equus Przewalski, after the Polish explorer, the animal is considered the world's only genuine wild horse. Many characteristics differentiate the Przewalski, or Takhi as it's known in Mongolian, from other other horses. The Takhi tends to have a smaller build, upright mane, an ass-like tail, and dark brown legs. Unlike America's wild mustangs, which come from domesticated stock, the Takhi has historically been free from manmade selection. In strictly scientific terms, the Takhi is a distinct species due to its 66-chromosome count; all other horses on Earth have 64 chromosomes.

However, scientists and naturalists are more concerned about the behavioral uniqueness of the Takhi. Protecting this quality makes the reintroduction of the horse into the wild all the more essential.

Discussed for decades, reintroduction efforts gained speed when Mongolia began distancing itself from the Soviet Union, its patron state for the past 70 years. Several projects were presented to the Mongolian government amidst the chaos as the country shifted from socialism to democracy. While there is an obvious air of acrimony among different reintroduction groups, consensus centers both on the need to return the horse to Mongolia and prospects for success.

"I'm very optimistic," says Oliver Ryder, geneticist of the Zoological Society of San Diego, and secretariat of the Global Management Plan for the Przewalski Horse. "In the long history of reintroduction, there have been more failures than successes. This is a good opportunity to bring something back."

Ryder says an unusual asset is the vast amount of undeveloped land in Mongolia. This provides an opportunity to protect not only the rare horse, but also the complete ecosystem that once sustained it.

However, controversy continues to stir the scientific community on the right site and method of reintroduction. The debate began long before the Dutch-based Foundation for the Preservation of the Przewalski Horse began its unusual airlift.

Machteld van Dierendonck, a Foundation volunteer in Mongolia, says the project started 20 years ago. Animals were acquired in the 1970s, and selectively bred towards the truest characteristics of the Takhi. Large reserves were established so the animals could live with a minimum of human contact.

"The goal was always reintroduction," she says. "To prepare them, we decided upon a gradual program to give them a chance to adapt. The ones we moved are second generation. Their mothers lived all their lives in the nature reserves, and the babies were born there."

A similar pattern of reintroduction is underway in Mongolia. The Foundation searched for a site for five years before settling on 50,000 hectares of rolling hills about 85 kilometers west of the Mongolian capital of Ulan Bator. The group fenced three acclimation areas, each 70-80 hectars. The horses will stay in the enclosures for a year, completing another birth cycle.

After one group is released into the wild, another will be moved to Mongolia. Each group includes a varied amount of mares and foals, with stallions and mares mixed from the Ukraine and Holland herds.

"By the year 2,000, we expect to have 80 animals returned to Mongolia and (with births) a total of 250 horses in the wild," says van Dierendonck. "I think that's realistic."

However, Ryder and other scientists worry that the site was poorly chosen. The main criticism stems from proximity to settlements in the area. While Mongolia is sparsely populated, Ryder says the animals may still encounter herders and could well interact with local horse herds, threatening already precarious genetic purity.

The Foundation has hired local workers to patrol the preserve, pushing back the Talkhi that roam too far. Ryder counters, "The real goal is to put the horses in a population-free area, not behind fences, and unfettered by human contact."

Ryder's group prefers a preserve in the Gobi area, despite the lack of grazing ground and water, and tremendous climate variations. "It's not the most optimal site," he admits. "But the goal of reintroduction is to restore and preserve an ecosystem. The Gobi is one of the most valuable areas on Earth. It's virtually untouched."

Planning has ongoing for over a decade, but efforts picked up pace as reintroduction turned into a horse race between different groups. "We've revised our time frame quite a bit," Ryder admits. "Mongolia wanted things done in a hurry. Mongolians seem a bit bewildered by all the effort now, and so much time for study."

Indeed, the minister of Mongolia's new environmental protection department, Batjargal, expresses dismay at all the delays. "We have been talking about this since 1975. Things got realistic in 1981. But it took so many years, so much planning."

Part of the problem is financing. Ryder estimates a cost of US$15,000 to transport each horse from western reserves to the Gobi desert. While international organizations may be able to raise these sums, the salaries of park personnel and upkeep will fall to the Mongolian government, which is virtually bankrupt.

Still, there is undeniable enthusiasm among Mongols for the effort. "The Mongolian people want the wild horses to come back," Batjargal says. "Mongolians like horses, but this is more important. This is a science project for the whole world."

Yet there remain numerous obstacles on the Mongolian side, not the least of which involve a Soviet-inspired thicket of bureaucracy. My visit took weeks to organize. Then, after a long journey, we were turned away by the reserve manager, who insisted he was sole overseer of the wild horses. My accompanying employee of the state nature ministry offered no assistance at this stage, but demanded a "donation" afterwards for the privilege of viewing the horses, as if they were circus animals on show to the highest bidder.

Such haphazard approaches to conservation have hampered previous Mongolian exchanges with western environmental organizations. However, Jeffery Griffith, an American environmental specialist from Yale, who spent the summer advising Mongolians on park design and preservation, notes that the nomads have a historical affinity with nature. The country has the world's oldest wildlife park, in fact.

"Their commitment to protection is really quite advanced," he says, "Certainly much better then when the United States started its park development a hundred years ago.

"They really have the chance to do it right the first time."

And, with the Takhi, Mongolians have an odds-on emotional and ecological favorite.

"We see more and more large, charismatic creatures disappearing around us," Ryder says. "And the great ones, like the elephants, are herded into fenced areas. This is a nice opportunity to do something in contrast, to preserve something grand from the wilderness, like the Gobi itself.

"This is a commitment of humankind globally to our environmental future. It's emotional and symbolic, but the importance is very real, to show that humans care. There are always people who will say, it's just a horse. But the future will thank us for what we saved."

Ron Gluckman is an American journalist based in Hong Kong, who travels widely around the Asian region for a variety of publications, including American Express, which ran this story in several of its cardholder magazines across Asia in 1992.  

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