Wild Horses Drag You Away

By KIT GILLET

Deep within the mountainous Hustai National Park in central Mongolia, our guide Tserennadmid raises a leathery hand and, extending a bony index finger, points into the distance across the rolling valleys. I can see nothing but green hills and rocky outcrops.

But 69-year-old Tserennadmid—like most Mongolians, he goes by just one name—has spotted a group of the last truly wild horses on earth, the Przewalski's Horses, known to locals as takhi, or 'spirit.'

"I can see a group of ten in among those rocks," says our guide, pointing off into the far distance, before setting off at pace toward the tiny horses on the other side of the deep valley.

Hustai park was set up by the Mongolian government almost 20 years ago as a safe home to the takhi. The horses are smaller than most breeds, and have mottled brown coats. They were almost wiped out in the 19th and 20th century—when they were hunted for game and for their meat—and because of the shrinking of their natural habitat in the plains of central Asia and Mongolia due to competition from people and livestock.

Two decades ago, the species was officially extinct outside of captivity—the last wild takhi was seen wandering the Mongolian steppes back in 1969—though a few lived in zoos in Europe.

A conservation group based in the Netherlands started on plans in the early 1990s to introduce some of the animals from zoos in Prague and Munich back into their native environment, and the takhi have made their way back from the brink of extinction. In 2008, the International Union for Conservation of Nature reclassified the breed from extinct in the wild to critically endangered. Their total number world-wide, in the wild and in captivity, is now approaching 2,000.
Between 1992 and 2000, 84 captive-born horses were brought to Hustai, a 50,000-hectare expanse of valleys and grasslands two hours' drive from the Mongolian capital of Ulan Bator.

"In the beginning I think it was very hard for them to adapt," says T.Batbaatar, one of Hustai's resident biologists, sitting at his desk in one of the park's scientific observation centers. "For the first two years they were kept inside large enclosures."

A big concern is how to keep the takhi from interbreeding with domesticated horses, which the park does by wherever possible keeping domesticated horses away from the outskirts of the park. Wolves are also a problem—the park rangers try to deter them by driving loud motorbikes around the park at night.

Today, the horses at Hustai are in 20 breeding harems and bachelor groups—herds of young stallions or other males without a mate—and they have adapted much better to life in the wild, says T. Batbaatar.

In all, around 250 takhi live in Hustai now (there are about 400 wild takhi in total across China and Mongolia.)

At the entrance to the park, there are basic facilities including a visitor's centre and a small restaurant. Distinctive, round Mongolian Yurts are available for rent nearby for around $15/night per person. Once you travel beyond the entrance of Hustai, your best option is to hire a guide, and there are a number of tour operators in Ulan Bator organizing day or overnight trips to the park.

Our driver from Ulan Bator arranged for us to meet Tserennadmid, who had spent a decade working as an accountant at the park before retiring, who in turn agreed to take us to search for the horses for a few dollars we paid him to cover the cost of food and shelter.

A craggy-skinned, slightly stooped man with a warm smile, Tserennadmid moved to the countryside from the city a decade ago to enjoy his later years. He guides our group of four out along a rutted trail for thirty minutes deep into the heart of the park. We park the car at the bottom of a steep valley and set off on foot uphill.

The takhi are naturally shy animals and are not easy to find. But after just 20 minutes on foot, Tserennadmid stops and motions into the distance. Not seeing them, we follow our guide.

It's a shock to finally see them, a group of 10, exactly where Tserennadmid said they would be. Camouflaged by the rocks and boulders around them, the takhi appear 50 meters in front of us, peacefully grazing and altogether ignoring our presence

As we approach, the dominant stallion moves between us and the rest of the herd. We stay quiet. They look more like ponies than the steeds of Genghis Khan and his hordes. They're genetically different from domesticated or once-domesticated breeds of horses like the mustang—they have two more chromosomes (66 compared to 64) that make them a separate species, one thought to have diverged from a common horse ancestor half a million years ago.

The wild horses are 10 meters in front of us for just a few minutes before the clear blue skies start to darken. Lightning is visible in the distance, and the horses are startled at the sound of thunder. They turn and gallop away, presumably toward shelter.

It's time for us also to make our way back to the car and the comforts of Tserennadmid's home, a large, sparsely lit yurt, located behind the visitors center, that has two ragged cot-beds, an old-fashioned and blackened stove in the center, and a few photographs of family members hanging on the wall. Tserennadmid's wife cooks a hearty Mongolian mutton broth, followed by several glasses of strong Russian vodka.

"There are two other parks in Mongolia that have started to reintroduce the takhi," says our guide when we are back in the warmth of his yurt, "but Hustai is their home."

In central Mongolia, the last truly untamed wild horse is slowly making a return.

Source:Wall Street Journal

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