| Ana Radic |
Ulan Bator (dpa) – A scent of herbs hangs in the air in Khustain Nuruu National Park in central Mongolia as Tseren Nadmid pushes his hat out of his eyes to train his binoculars on the green hills of the steppe.
The ranger and biologist finds what he is looking for, a herd of Przewalski’s horses grazing just past the next rise – or takhi as the undomesticated wild sub-species is known here.
The species was long extinct in the wild, but when formerly communist Mongolia began opening up in 1990, specimens taken from European zoos were reintroduced into their natural habitat.
Success stories in returning animals to the wild are rare, but there are now around 460 of the animals in three conservation areas in Mongolia.
“We Mongols have traditionally lived as nomads,” Nadmid says. “And so we have had a good link with animals and nature. It goes back to the distant past.”
This could be the key to the resettlement project, as the takhi is close to being a national symbol for Mongolia. The revival of the subspecies, Equus ferus przewalskii, in the wild was celebrated across the country.
There is no problem here with the poaching that has bedevilled similar projects. Nevertheless there was considerable scepticism over whether it would succeed.
“The initial years were very, very hard,” says Christian Walzer, a professor at the Research Institute of Wildlife Ecology of Vienna University who has been working on the project since the 1990s.
“Releasing these horses into the wild was something completely new. There was no previous experience.”
The takhi are among the forbears of the modern domestic horse.
These compact animals with their dun coloured skins and characteristic erect manes have an additional chromosome pair, compared with the domestic horse.
Although they once roamed across the vast Eurasian steppe, these wild horses were described for first time only in the 19th century.
They are named after the Russian explorer Nikolai Mikhailovich Przhevalsky, who brought a skull of one back to the West.
When Walzer and his colleagues reintroduced this horse to the East in the 1990s, they had no idea how they would adapt to life in the wild.
“A considerable amount of optimism was needed,” says Walzer, a trained vet.
But it was also an interesting experiment.
Mongolia’s extreme weather is a major challenge. With temperatures falling to minus 50 degrees Celsius, the research team lost more than half the takhis in the conservation area in the Gobi Desert, according to Walzer.
The proximity of the Khustain Nuruu National Park to the Mongolian capital has proved a problem for the conservationists, as the protected area is relatively small at 500 square kilometres, and the surrounding area is heavily grazed.
As the area is limited, it can support around 300 of the Przewalski’s horses.
“When this national park was set up, many of the people in the vicinity were against us,” Nadmid recalls.
The breeders wanted the area for their own herds, but today there is greater acceptance. The three conservation areas are now financed with donations.
Walzer is hoping for a corridor to be set up over the border to China, as Przewalski’s horses have also been acclimatised over there.
“The political will is there,” he says. But the negotiations have been difficult.
The subspecies is no longer seen as critically endangered,
but is now classified as endangered.
That upgrade represents a major success. It is also one of the few examples of successful reintroduction to the wild.
Walzer and his colleagues are now hoping that the population will stabilise at a higher level in a cross-border conservation area.