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A Big Steppe in the Right Direction

Taki horseI was first mesmerized by Mongolia because of its legendary horse culture. With visions of Chinggis Khan and his mounted warriors galloping across the Mongolian Steppe, I have always been attracted to this time in history. How could one man conquer so much of the world? And how incredible that his greatest weapon was the horse. Much has changed since Chinggis’s era, but the horse’s presence has stood the test of time.

It has been debated for years whether the domestic horse derives from the Takhi wild horses of Mongolia. Recently it was proven with DNA samples that the domestic horse does not share the same DNA and that the Takhi (also called “Przewalski’s horse”) is indeed its own species entirely.

mf5a4196-2In 1880, Russian explorer Nikolai Przewalski encountered a small population of wild horses while traveling in Mongolia. The horses were compact, with heavy limbs and strong necks. They had dun1 coats with a white stain around the nose and a thin, dark stripe that ran from the mane to the tail. These were unlike the so-called “wild” horses that were abundant throughout Australia and North America. The wild horses of Australia and North America are actually feral, descended from domesticated horses. The Asian horses were a distinct species of Equus that had never been domesticated. Word of these rare wild horses traveled fast, and it did not take long for zoo collectors to travel great distances to bring these exotic creatures to the west. Along with zoo collectors, harsh winters, competition for pastures, and hunting of the Takhi had a catastrophic effect on their numbers and eventually led to their extinction. The last known wild horse was spotted by a Mongolian herder in 1969, and the Takhi was officially declared extinct in the wild shortly after. All was not lost, however, because there were a few zoos around the world that still had a small collection of Takhi horses whose ancestors were taken from the wild. Only 31 Takhi horses remained in captivity, and all Takhi horses to this day are descendants of 12 captive animals that were bred with remarkable success. A small group of passionate conservationists dedicated their lives to breeding these highly endangered horses with hopes of being able to reintroduce them to the wilds of Mongolia.

mf5a4356-2After the fall of communism in the early ’90s, breeding programs were welcomed with open arms into Mongolia. With many nations working closely together, the long road to returning these horses to the wild had begun. In 1992, 16 horses were released in Mongolia, followed by additional animals later on. Since the late ’90s Takhi have been successfully breeding in the wild, with captive animals occasionally being introduced to supplement the wild herds and reduce inbreeding. Today it is estimated that there are more than 300 wild Takhi horses, which is quite an amazing feat.

mf5a4352-2The drive from UB to Hustai National Park is only a few hours, not long at all by Mongolian standards. With a few swerves and bumps we arrived at the park gates in no time. Our room for the night would be in a traditional Ger2 set up like a small resort for tourists, and I was quite excited to finally be sleeping in a Ger for the first time. Taking full advantage of our jet lag, getting up and out of bed in the morning light was quite easy. The cooks preparing our breakfast were not as excited to be up early, but hey, I’m in Mongolia: how could I be cranky about a little time lost? The Takhi are best seen in the evening or early morning, so it is definitely worth spending the night to better your odds of seeing them. It was the second week of September, and the weather was still beautiful; I could feel myself sweating as we headed out for our adventures. As the sun was setting after a long and beautiful day in the park, the horses started heading down from the mountains to get their evening drink. We definitely got lucky with how close we were able to get to these amazing horses.

The reintroduction of the Takhi horses to the wild is nothing short of miraculous, making it one of the best conservation success stories of our time.

  1. Dun describes horses with a coat color ranging from sandy yellow to reddish brown
  2. A Ger is a local hut built from a simple wooden structure and insulated with felt, with an oven in the center for heating and cooking

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