Takhi: The Last Wild Horses
by Robin Meadows
Mongolia has been the land of the horse for longer than anyone can remember. But today, the horses that reign over this vast country are domestic rather than wild, and, in a switch of fate, most of the remaining Mongolian wild horses are in zoos scattered around the rest of the world. While various groups are trying to reintroduce the wild horse to its native home, their efforts have been more in the spirit of competition than of collaboration. “It’s like a Greek tragedy,” says Oliver Ryder of the San Diego Zoo’s Centre for the Reproduction of Endangered Species. “It’s about money and power in Mongolia mixed with the mystique of wild horses and the intrigue of foreign personalities.”
Known as Przewalski’s Horse in the West, and takhi in Mongolia, these dun-coloured, black-maned equids are the only wild horses left in the world. The so-called wild horses that abound in Australia and North America’s western plains and East Coast barrier islands actually feral horses – that is, domestic stock that escaped from ranches and farms and returned to the wild. Although takhi and domestic horses can look alike, the two are distinct species (Equus feruus przewalskii and Equus caballus, respectively). They are very closely related, however; another subspecies of E. ferus called the tarpan was the forebear of the domestic horse.
The horse is an integral part of Mongolian culture. During the 12th and 13th centuries, Chinggis Khaan and his descendants triumphantly rode horses while building the largest empire in history, a swath of land sweeping from China to Europe. Today, children learn to ride when they are only four or five years old, and about half of Mongolia’s 2.4 million people are semi-nomadic and support themselves by breeding domestic animals. “That is their wealth and security,” says Ryder. While all horses are important to the Mongolians, takhi are especially dear to them: “Takhi” means “spirit” or “spiritual” in Mongolian, and the species is a symbol of their national heritage.
Distinguished from domestic horses in part by their thicker necks, shorter legs, and zebra-like erect mane, takhi were last seen in the wild during the 1960s in the Gobi, which accounts for roughly the southern third of Mongolia. Many people think the Gobi is just a huge desert. However, unlike the Sahara, only a tiny part of it is a sandy desert. While the Gobi is extremely dry, the region also has springs, steppes, forests, and high mountains, and supports a great diversity of mammals, from the Asian wild ass and Siberian ibex to wolves and snow leopards. Like the takhi before them, many of these species are declining and may be on their way to extinction.
One of the main reasons that the takhi died out in the Gobi is that increasing of people and livestock drove these shy, wary animals away from the area’s few waterholes. Unfortunately, some believe that Western collectors, who killed and dispersed many adults in pursuit of foals, may have accelerated the takhi’s demise in the wild.
However, zoos saved the takhi from dying out altogether by breeding the species. All of the approximately 1,200 takhi alive today are descended from 12 that were caught in the wild around 1900. Species that are reduced to such small populations can lose much of their genetic diversity, which in turn can make the adults less fertile and the young less likely to survive. And as if one round of drastic population decrease wasn’t enough of an impediment to conserving takhi, the species went through another round during World War II: in 1945, there were once again only 12 breeding takhi in the world.
This history notwithstanding, today’s takhi population enjoys remarkably good genetic health, thanks to zoo propagation strategies, such as avoiding inbreeding and ensuring that rare genes are not lost. The two largest of the four breeding programmes are the Species Survival Plan (SSP) in North America, which has about 190 takhi in 21 zoos, including the NZP’s Conservation and Research Centre at Front Royal, Virginia, and the European equivalent (EEP), which has about 600 takhi in 16 countries. The other two breeding programmes are in Holland and Australia. In addition, the San Diego Zoo has frozen cell lines from about 500 takhi, which, Ryder suggests, could be used for cloning someday.
While breeding takhi in zoos has been a tremendous success, the ultimate goal of a breeding programme is to re-establish free-ranging, self-sustaining populations of the species in the wild. Unfortunately, rather than coordinating with each other, each breeding programme has promoted its own idea for how and where to reintroduce the species, say Dutch biologists Machteld van Dierendonck and Michiel Wallis de Vries in a 1996 paper in the journal Conservation Biology.
The question of where to reintroduce takhi arises in part because there is no consensus on the species’ historical habitat. Some biologists say that takhi belong in the Gobi, claiming that those that died out there were the last of a population that once flourished in this arid habitat. Others counter that takhi belong in the grassy steppes, claiming that those living in the Gobi were a remnant population from the steppes that were forced into marginal habitat. “I don’t think the debate really matters,” says Lee Boyd of Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, who co-edited a book on the species (Przewalski’s Horse: The History and Biology of an Endangered Species, 1994 SUNY Press). “I don’t think we’ll ever really know. They could have been that broadly distributed [and lived in both the Gobi and the steppe].”
In the end, simply reintroducing the takhi back to Mongolia may be the most important issue. The contrast between the cushy conditions of zoos and those of their native land could hardly be greater. An Alaska-sized country sandwiched between China and the former Soviet Union, Mongolia is a land of extremes: summer temperatures can soar to 104 degrees Farenheit, while winter temperatures can plunge to 50 below zero. Every five years or so, winter sleet storms called zud encase the vegetation in ice, causing starvation and mass deaths of grazing animals.
Yet the sturdy takhi once flourished in Mongolia, and from a purely biological standpoint, reintroducing them should be simple. There are plenty of takhi in zoos around the world, and their needs and behaviours are relatively well understood. In an ideal world, we should be able to release takhi in Mongolia and let them take it from there.
But while conservation is a noble endeavour, things done in the name of conservation are not necessarily noble. “Often, the initiating organisations have hidden agendas unrelated to the principal goal of the conservation effort,” admonishes van Dierendonck and de Vries in the Conservation Biology paper.
The takhi world is rife with tales of dirty dealings. A prime example is the story of the race between a number of foreign groups to reintroduce the species. Being first was a sure way to curry favour with the Mongolians, who, upon winning their freedom after some 65 years of Soviet rule in 1990, wanted to bring takhi back in the country in time for the next Naadam Festival, a celebration of national pride that features wrestling, archery, and horse racing.
However, with the costs of transporting and maintaining takhi, bringing them back to Mongolia was an expensive proposition, and the new government was in no position to foot the bill. The story goes that Christian Oswald – a German businessman who exports from Mongolia antlers, exotic meats, and other raw materials for his wildlife-derived products business – promised the Mongolians that he would be the first to bring takhi back.
But first does not necessarily mean best, and Oswald’s attempt to reintroduce takhi in the Gobi has had one problem after another. The Ukraine, which participates in the European breeding programme, sent five takhi in1992 and an additional eight in 1993. Before releasing zoo-bred animals to the wild, biologists recommend an acclimation period in a fenced enclosure. However, Oswald’s site, which he named Takhiin Tal (Mongolian for “Valley of the Wild Horses”), is not the best: forage is scarce, the wind chill is fierce during the winter, and, perhaps worst of all, the enclosure has only one stream, and even that is dry during most of the year.
Moreover, the Takhiin Tal programme failed to anticipate that a single enclosure would not suit the takhi’s social system. As is true of domestic horses, male takhi vie for females and for resources such as food and water. During the first years of the programme, the dominant stallion and his mare defended the relatively forage- and water-rich area near the stream, and a number of the excluded takhi died, according to a United Nations Development Plan Biodiversity Project report by a team of international takhi experts.
Taking umbrage at this report, Oswald took it upon himself to disparage the investigating experts in an open letter to all members of the Euroepan takhi captive breeding programme. In a rebuke to Oswald, Mongolian Minister of Nature and Environment, Zambyn Batjargal, said that takhi reintroduction should not be “an arena of competition between foreign” interests.
While the EEP provided the initial takhi for the Takhiin Tal programme, it has not sent any since. Likewise, the SSP has not sent any takhi to Mongolia. The Australians did give Oswald seven mares, but some suspect that their motives were questionable – they were lobbying Mongolia to cast its vote for Sydney as host of the summer Olympics in the year 2000. (For the record, Mongolia voted for Sydney.)
Since 1993, the Takhiin Tal programme has improved. The stallions have separate enclosures so that none will be victimised by the others, and the Mongolian staff supplies food and water daily. But even so, there is little hope that the Takhiin Tal programme will be able to reintroduce takhi into the wild. Although the Gobi may be a good place for takhi in theory, the factors that led to the species’ demise have not been alleviated. If anything, the situation in the Gobi has worsened: the military grazes more than 5,000 head of domestic livestock there year-round, and nomads graze about 75,000 head there during the winter. Some fear that overgrazing will turn the Gobi into a Sahara-type desert.
Right now, the best hope for successfully reintroducing takhi is a programme in the Khustain Nuruu Steppe Reserve, which lies in the low, rolling mountains of central Mongolia, and was historically protected as a khaan [king’s] hunting preserve. The reserve’s takhi reintroduction programme is a joint effort of the Mongolian Association for Conservation of Nature and the Environment (a non-governmental conservation organisation) and the Foundation Reserves for the Przewalski Horse (a private Dutch group that manages takhi in the Netherlands and Germany).
Life is good for the takhi at Khustain Nuruu during the summer, when the streams flow freely and the mountains are green with forage. Since the programme’s establishment in the early 1990s, three harems have been released from their initial acclimation enclosures and are faring well in the wild. Notably, although the frozen, windy winters can be particularly hard on nursing mothers and foals, more than a quarter of the 56 takhi in the reserve were born in Mongolia.
While Washburn University’s Boyd, who does field studies of the takhi at the reserve, feels positive about the Khustain Nuruu reintroduction, she is the first to admit that it is not without potential problems. Chief among them is the reserve’s proximity to domestic horses. When domestic horses mate with takhi, they produce fertile hybrids that could dilute the takhi’s bloodline. First-generation hybrids can look exactly like pure-bred takhi, and the only way to differentiate between them is genetic testing: takhi have 66 chromosomes, domestic horses have 64, and hybrids have 65.
Reserve wardens do all they can to prevent hybridisation, including riding geldings when in the reserve, driving domestic horses out of the reserve, and escorting the nomads and their livestock during their annual migrations through the reserve. In addition, all of the takhi are individually recognised and named. But someday, there could be so many takhi in Khustain Nuruu that they will come and go as they please, and keeping tabs on them individually will not be feasible. “We have about 25 years before hybrids will be a big problem [in Khustain Nuruu],” predicts Boyd.
Even if the Khustain Nuruu programme achieves its goal of establishing a free-ranging, self-sustaining population of takhi, more reintroduction sites will be required to secure the species’ future in the wild. And as vast as Mongolia is, finding space for reserves is difficult, because where there is water and forage, there are also people and livestock.
After more than 200 years of first Chinese, and then Soviet rule, the newly independent Mongolia is still finding itself. The country is making the transition from a state-controlled economy to a privatised free-market system, but has not yet recovered from the loss of Soviet aid. (Until 1990, the Soviets sold Mongolia nearly all of its imports and bought most of its products.) Food is scarce, in part because only one percent of the land is arable, and the growing season is very short.
”The people and the government really support takhi reintroudction effortsk” says Jachingiin Tserendeleg, who coordinates the Mongolian Takhi Reintroduction Project and is president of the Mongolian Association for Conservation of Nature and the Environment. “But they are not able to contribute to this activity.”
Until Mongolia is ready for more takhi reintroduction programmes, the best conservation organisations can do is to continue keeping the zoo populations healthy. “The good news is that we’re not risking the gene pool,” says the San Diego Zoo’s Ryder, who formerly coordinated the North American zoo breeding programme. “We can preserve the species until it is securely re-established in the wild.”
Mongolians' Closeness to Nature
Lake Baikal covers 31,500 square km, and is 636 km long; at its widest point, it is 79.4 km. Its water basin occupies about 557,000 square km, and contains about 23,000 cubic km of water. This adds up to about one fifth of the world’s reserves of fresh water, and more than 80 percent of the fresh water reservoir in the former Soviet Union. Lake Baikal is the deepest lake in the world. The presently known maximum depth is 1,637 metres. However, this is far from the whole story: Baikal’s inscrutable depths hide huge underwater voids that are connected to channels that run deeply into the underworld.
Baikal is situated in Eastern Siberia, in the Buryat Autonomous Republic and Irkutsk Region of Russia, and is a natural boundary between Russian Siberia and Mongolia. It plays a momentous role in Mongol history. The Secret History of the Mongols relates, through its ancestral myth, how the Mongol people came into being. The ancestry of Chinggis Khaan, the blue-grey Borte wolf and his wife, the reddish-brown Go Maral deer, travelled together across the “inland sea” – that is, Lake Baikal. When these two reached the Ono River on the eastern side of Baikal, their first son, Battsagan, was born. Battsagan was then the first human ancestor of Chinggis Khaan. Metaphysically speaking, travelling across water is symbolic of transcendence, of reaching new stages. Lake Baikal was thus the catalyst of the emergence of the Mongol nation.
The meaning of “Chinggis” is something like “large body of water”, “ocean”, or “huge quantities of water”. Considering what we know about the symbolism and spiritual universe of the Old Mongols, it seems probable that Temujin chose to call himself by that name on the ground that water is the strongest, the only unconquerable, but at the same time, the most changeable and also the softest of all substances. Its peaceful, harmonic, imperturbable stillness can in a moment change into a frenzied demon of waves shattering to pieces everything standing in its way. This is characteristically accomplished by water’s utilising the forces existing in its environment.
Water is thus invulnerable and ubiquitous; it unites within itself all opposing qualities. Hence, it is not limited by any of them. In this way, it possesses incomparable flexibility, softness and hardness without rigidity. It can therefore anywhere, anytime, adapt itself to any new circumstance, then in a split-second completely unexpectedly take on a new quality. Chances are that Temujin called himself “Chinggis” for the very reason that he wanted himself and his people to adopt and use the unique qualities of water in their actions.
And the people of Temujin did indeed combine them all in a way hitherto unknown. In the battlefield, they did not meet hard force with rigid resistance; when Western armies fought the Mongols, they never answered the attack with rigid force; instead, they yielded softly, like the smooth, fleeting and dancing movements of a wave, precisely in a “watery” way. The Western ideal of manfulness with forced courage, outer demonstrations of rigid, but ephemeral and false strength, was not shared by the people of Chinggis Khaan. They let their opponents deplete their energy in futile shows and fierce, disorganised charges, while the Mongols, with an almost playful ease, followed their opponents’ movements in every detail. Intuitively, they without fail knew in advance what their opponent was going to do next; they absolved and evaded every attempt of attack with a nimbleness and surefootedness bordering on the impossible. When the time was right, they would envelop their doomed prey, exhaust him, and “drown” him. The Mongols operated in exactly the same way as water would envelop and slowly obliterate what it has trapped.
This extraordinary intuitive adaptability, flexibility and eerie perspicacity permeated their whole nature, all their thoughts and actions. All this tells us what water represents: simultaneous strength and indefatigable, invincible strength due to its adaptable softness. The insight in this is a main constituent of the secret of the Mongols.
We can easily guess from which ocean Chinggis Khaan took his name, and this implies that the real meaning of his title is “King from the Baikal Ocean”, once more emphasising the crucial role of Baikal in the Mongolian spiritual universe. As for the lake itself, water is a feminine element, and the name of the goddess and ruler of Baikal is Baikal-Ehe. (Baikal means “nature”, and Ehe means “mother” in Mongolian.)
The area around Baikal is diverse. Around it, we find the dark northern Taiga, which is the endless Siberian forest belt, as well as grassland steppes, mainly concentrated in its southeast areas. The mountains contain abundant mineral resources, so every kingdom of Nature is represented here – the animal, the avian, the botanic, the aquatic, and the mineral. Here they have found a natural meeting ground not found anywhere else on Earth. Nor surprisingly, the whole Baikal region is an extraordinarily fertile one. Accordingly, many types of animals roam in the mountains, valleys and forests. Likewise, Baikal itself, as well as the numerous rivers, streams and lakes around it, is plentifully filled with fish. To add to all this natural diversity, even hot springs are found around this sacred Siberian inland sea. Lake Baikal is the true repository of the spiritual principles of Chinggis Khaan and the Mongol Empire, and it was its amalgamation of the different forces and powers of Nature that gave the Mongols their matchless versatility and flexibility to successfully meet any new circumstances.
Baikal is unlike all other lakes in the world by virtue of its extreme depth, great volume, the high quality of its water, and its very old age. Average lakes exist for no more than some tens of thousands of years, whereas Baikal has dwelled in Central Asia for at least 20-30 million years. And she is, of course, incomparably the oldest lake on earth. It is also distinguished by its unparalleled wildlife. In the immense depths of Baikal dwell forms of life not found anywhere else on earth, many of which are certainly undiscovered.
The first sight of numinous Lake Baikal instills in you a profound and indelible impression of an enigmatic power, unforgiving purity, dignity, nobility and grandeur. You mysteriously perceive the presence of the divine, and immediately sense why indigenous people from Siberia and Mongolia have always spoken reverently of her as “The Ocean”. They rightfully consider her a conscious being, and they believe she might take umbrage if they showed the affront of calling her a lake instead of an ocean. She is the deepest, purest, and, in light of her uniquely multifaceted surroundings and wildlife, and the otherworldly atmosphere she radiates, greatest lake-ocean in the world.