Przewalski’s horses


Amidst the rugged expanse of Mongolia’s mountainous terrain, Dashpurev Tserendeleg points out a cluster of horses grazing on a nearby mountain slope. Enthralled students and curious tourists gather around, their eyes trained through binoculars and smartphone cameras capturing the sight before them.

These equine creatures, with their sturdy frames and robust necks, bear a striking resemblance to ponies. Known as takhi to Mongolians and globally recognised as Przewalski’s horses, they stand as a testament to one of the most triumphant wildlife reintroduction endeavours in history—a narrative of resilience and conservation against the backdrop of a changing world.

“Horses are central to our culture. Everyone is glad to have them back,” Dashpurev says.

Once hunted to extinction in the wild during the tumultuous 1960s, today, nearly 1,000 Przewalski’s horses roam free across three designated sites in Mongolia, with additional populations thriving in China and Kazakhstan. Among these, the largest congregation, numbering 423 individuals, graces the expansive grasslands of central Mongolia’s Hustai National Park—a testament to the perseverance of a species once on the brink of oblivion.

Annually, tens of thousands of visitors flock to this picturesque enclave, situated a mere 100 kilometres from Mongolia’s bustling capital, Ulaanbaatar, drawn by the allure of witnessing these majestic creatures in their natural habitat.

“Before the reintroduction, nobody believed we could save this species,” says Dashpurev, who runs Hustai national park. Since then, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has downgraded the risk status of Przewalski’s horse twice: “Our biggest achievement,” he says.

Yet, amidst this tale of triumph lies a somber contrast, as Mongolia’s broader wildlife faces unprecedented challenges wrought by a convergence of factors—ranging from rampant hunting and the encroaching spectre of climate change to the insidious impacts of overgrazing and creeping desertification.

“Mongolia’s wildlife is in crisis,” says Tungaa Ulambayar, the local representative of the Zoological Society of London. “It is in real danger of being wiped out.”

The genesis of this crisis traces back to the transformative upheaval of Mongolia’s socio-political landscape during the 1990s—the fall of the iron curtain heralding the demise of Mongolia’s communist era and thrusting the nation into the uncharted waters of a free-market economy. The ensuing turbulence unleashed a cascade of economic turmoil, characterised by shuttered factories, widespread unemployment, and social upheaval, leaving an indelible imprint on Mongolia’s ecological tapestry.

“The country basically collapsed,” says Kirk Olson, an American wildlife biologist who spent more than two decades in Mongolia. “It was a free-for-all and the only resource left was the natural environment, so everyone hunted to survive. You would see cartloads of marmot skins, antlers and wolf parts in the market. Anything with four legs was sought out.”

In the ensuing decades, the toll on Mongolia’s wildlife has been devastating. Red deer populations plummeted from a staggering 130,000 in 1986 to a mere 8,000 by 2004, while the once-thriving marmot populace dwindled from 40 million to a mere 5 million by 2002. Similarly, the saiga antelope witnessed a catastrophic decline, with numbers plummeting by a staggering 85% between 1999 and 2004, while the argali sheep—a symbol of Mongolia’s rugged wilderness—saw their ranks dwindle by 75% from 1975 to 2001.

Simultaneously, the lifting of communist-era restrictions on private property precipitated an exponential surge in livestock numbers, with Mongolia’s national herd swelling to a staggering 71 million animals—far surpassing the carrying capacity of the nation’s grasslands, where 70% now stand degraded. This unchecked proliferation of livestock poses a dire threat to Mongolia’s fragile ecosystem, imperilling the very fabric of its natural heritage and propelling it towards the precipice of ecological collapse.

An environment ministry spokesperson says this overgrazing could lead to the “eventual extinction of natural plants.”

“When you travel around Mongolia, you think, ‘Wow, there’s nothing out there,’” says Olson. “But actually, it’s full of domestic animals. That means less grass for wildlife, except in a few rocky crags the livestock can’t get to. Everything else gets bitten right down to the dirt.”

Even within protected enclaves like Hustai National Park, the delicate balance between conservation and human activity teeters on a knife’s edge. Here, amidst the pristine wilderness, the coexistence of wild Przewalski’s horses with their domestic counterparts remains fraught, as encroaching herds of domestic horses encroach upon their natural habitat—a grim testament to the challenges of preserving Mongolia’s biodiversity in the face of relentless anthropogenic pressures.

Each winter, people release between 4,000 and 5,000 domestic horses in the protected area, says Batmunkh Tserennorov, a Hustai ranger. “We have to chase them off every day.”

As climate change looms ever larger, Mongolia’s wildlife finds itself thrust into the crucible of environmental uncertainty. Across the expansive Mongolian steppe, temperatures rise at an alarming rate, outstripping the global average threefold and unleashing a cascade of extreme weather events—droughts, flash floods, and brutal winters—laying waste to vast swathes of habitat and imperilling the survival of both domestic and wild species alike.

In the face of this existential crisis, the Mongolian government has embarked on a series of initiatives aimed at safeguarding and revitalising its struggling wilderness. In 1998, Mongolia pledged to designate 30% of its territory as protected areas by 2030—an ambitious target echoed by 100 other nations in 2021. Yet, progress towards this goal remains elusive, with the nation currently standing at 21% protected.

Additionally, concerted efforts to combat illegal hunting have borne fruit, with strict fines serving as a deterrent to poaching—an essential step towards stemming the tide of ecological decline. Yet, these endeavours are hobbled by a chronic lack of funding, with Mongolia’s conservation efforts hamstrung by a dearth of resources and a shortfall in ranger numbers—a glaring deficiency that threatens to render many of its protected areas mere “paper parks.” A spokesperson for the government says it was “supporting the policy of updating and improving the equipment required for the work of the rangers”.

Moreover, the absence of legislation regulating pastureland usage poses a formidable barrier to conservation efforts, with unbridled grazing exacerbating overgrazing and habitat degradation.

“The government wants to grow the economy, that’s the key thing for them, so they are putting a lot of effort into expanding agriculture and mining,” says Buuveibaatar. “Wildlife is not a priority.”

Addressing this critical lacuna in Mongolia’s environmental governance framework remains paramount—a necessary step towards curbing livestock numbers and fostering the restoration of degraded ecosystems.

Olson says legal protection should apply to more areas. “There needs to be a much more integrated approach that doesn’t just focus on the protected areas, but on the whole ecosystem,” he says. “Places outside the protected areas are pretty important for wildlife, too.”

In the face of adversity, Hustai National Park emerges as a beacon of hope—a testament to the transformative power of conservation and community stewardship. Here, amidst the sweeping vistas and rolling hills, a mosaic of wildlife thrives, from rebounding populations of marmots and deer to the enduring legacy of the Przewalski’s horse—a living testament to the triumph of conservation over adversity.

At the heart of Hustai’s success lies a potent blend of long-term international partnerships, scientific rigour, and community engagement—an ecosystem of conservation that transcends borders and empowers local communities to become stewards of their natural heritage. The arduous journey towards the restoration of the Przewalski’s horse, spanning decades of meticulous planning and scientific endeavour, serves as a testament to the indomitable spirit of Mongolia’s conservationists—a testament to the power of collaboration in the face of adversity.

As Mongolia charts a course towards a sustainable future, the lessons gleaned from Hustai’s success story serve as a guiding light—a blueprint for conservation grounded in resilience, innovation, and unwavering commitment.

Most of Hustai’s principles could be easily applied elsewhere, Usukhjargal says. “The Przewalski’s horse reintroduction scheme is a worldwide example of how to save a large mammal,” he says. “Every country can follow it.”



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