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Wednesday, March 12, 2014
- In one of the most successful return-to-nature projects, the world’s only surviving race of wild horses is thriving in the wilds in Mongolia.
South of the Mongolian capital of Ulaan Baatar, dozens of Przewalski horses now roam freely across the Mongolian steppe, readjusting to the harsh climate, resisting wolf attacks and proving that 13 generations of captivity have not dulled their instincts.
To foster the numbers of a species of horse once almost extinct, countries and organisations now compete intensely to donate Przewalski horses, long held in zoos and captivity, to Mongolia.
Mongolia in turn is keen to welcome back the animals that are still considered holy by the 2.3 million nomadic Mongolians. In Mongolia, the horses are known as Takhi which actually translates as ‘holy’.
“We wanted to be part of the reintroduction of the Przewalski into Asia,” says Christian Oswald, a German big-game hunter and trader who has been dealing in rare animals in Mongolia since the 1980s but says he wanted to return something to the country. “We actually started first but it didn’t attract so much attention.”
Now, many others have jumped into the act. One programme to reintroduce the horses is led by Inge Bouman, a Dutch philanthropist and self-taught expert who took a fancy to the horses in the 1970s when she saw them in captivity.
Inspired, she and her husband set up in 1980 the Foundation Reserves for the Przewalski horse. They established large reserves in the Netherlands and Germany and bought horses from zoos, taking care to reduce the degree of inbreeding.
Then they approached the Mongolian government, which agreed to set up a 120,000-acre nature reserve at Hustain Nuruu, 80 miles south-west of the Mongolian capital. Bouman shipped the horses while the Dutch government financed a five-year programme centred around the horses to support biodiversity.
The first shipment of horses arrived in 1992. Now 58 horses live in the sprawling reserve, a net increase of 11, and present [plans call for 200 animals to live there.
Part of the fascination with the Przewalski is that it is truly wild. Unlike mustangs or feral horses in the United States, Przewalski horses cannot be tamed. No one has ever ridden a healthy Przewalski which always run free.
Two races of wild horses survive into modern times: the tarpan which became extinct in the Ukraine in the late 19th century and the Przewalski which got its name from a Polish explorer, Mikolai Przewalski. He discovered the skull of one in 1879 and identified it as a wild horse.
Reddish tan in color, the horse grows to a height of up to four feet eight inches with a dark cropped mane and dark tail.
By the time the Polish adventurer came along, the horse was already in danger as human settlement had pushed it from the steppes to the desert. Western hunters rushed in to capture the horse. Dozens were captured and scores more died defending their foals or in captivity.
The horse seemed doomed to extinction until World War II when Hermann Goering, a German Nazi leader, concocted a plan to breed all the animals that might have lived in the German Reich, including the Przewalskis.
Due to heavy bombing by the Allied forces, only 31 captured horses survived the war. The number of horses had rebounded to more than 900 by 1990, although inbreeding was a problem because they descended from so few bloodlines.
The last horse spotted in the wild was in 1968.
“Now that the horses returned to Mongolia have shown themselves able to defend against wolves and they’re adapting to the environment, the biggest question is what happens when they leave the reserves and breed with other horses,” says Lee Boyd, an expert on the horses from the United States.
The Dutch project appears to be more successful than Oswald’s larger reserve for the horses near the Gobi desert in southern Mongolia. The Gobi site has become a catch-all for all manner of gift horses.
Australian officials now admit that in 1992, when Sydney and Beijing were competing fiercely to host the 2000 Summer Olympics, the Sydney Olympic organising committee promised Mongolia seven of the Przewalski horses as a gesture of goodwill. Mongolia’s backing helped Sydney beat Beijing by one vote.