Magpie and takhi (Przewalski’s horse) – old friends reacquainted in a scene that has played out for many thousands of years but that was sadly interrupted in those decades during which the takhi were extinct in the wild.
In 1967, somewhere on the arid steppe of Mongolia’s Western Gobi Dessert, the last small herd of wild takhi was seen. Two years later, only one horse remained. And then Equus przewalskii vanished completely from the wild. Although closely related to modern domestic horses, takhi were never tamed. This differentiates their status as “truly wild” from the ferrel mustangs of America which are descendants of domestic horses.
In their natural environment, wolves were their main predators, and the dry, harsh, cold conditions of the steppe would invariably claim victims each winter. But the main cause of the demise of the takhi was probably due to its being hunted for meat.
Takhi form small family groups comprised of a lead stallion, two or three mares, and their offspring. These family groups loosely intermingle with other families as well as with bachelor stallions which often travel in pairs or groups of three. Stocky and with zebra-like manes, takhi are comparatively small, standing only about 48 – 56 inches tall at the shoulders. They have 66 chromosomes, two more than any other species of horse.
By 1970, the only living specimens existed in a few zoos and private ranches. Extinct in the wild, it seemed only a matter of time till their official extinction from the planet would be announced.
Then something truly remarkable occurred. In a cooperative venture between the Zoological Society of London and Mongolian biologists, the horses were reintroduced to Mongolia’s Khustai (Hustai) National Park where they’ve been thriving even since.
On a morning bright with ice needles in the air and a fresh dusting of snow on the ground, takhi and female red deer (Cervus elaphus) share a piece of rugged terrain in Mongolia’s Khustai National Park.
In full winter coats, these wild takhi are as beautiful as they are tough.
We counted ourselves as lucky to have spent a few days in Khustai during some of the coldest stretches of winter. The deeply rutted dirt roads were quiet, wildlife was abundant, and the horses seemed only mildly curious regarding our presence.
Takhi can readily be viewed in summertime as well. We can’t say which season is more beautiful. There are wild horses in this world still. That is beautiful.
I am really enjoying your explorations and history lessons on Mongolia! Thanks!
Thanks Linda! Glad to have you among our readers!
they are so beautiful! very stout and sturdy looking too. living vicariously through your photos, I’ve always wanted to visit Mongolia!
Their coats were so beautiful in the winter. Thanks for commenting!
When you first said you were going to Mongolia I had misgivings . Now I think you made a good decision . I enjoy your pictures and comments more than I can say. Keep up the GOOD work.
Thanks much for the kind words, Bill. It continues to be an amazing adventure.
I have been enjoying your travelogues for a while now, but this one is very inspiring. You are doing something right. I can’t wait for my next adventure! Thank you guys.
Thanks, Bud. Stay tuned for our upcoming post on Mongolia’s red deer – cousins of North America’s Elk.
This is such an educational post and you are so passionate about the wild horses. I’m glad to see more about them, since I asked the question earlier about the difference between these and other “wild” horses. I have another question though: in your research, did you find how they were introduced back into the park? Did the few people who had horses in captivity agree to give them up, or was there a breeding program or what? Ha ha… when I’m interested I just can’t help myself and I’m filled with questions.
I agree with you that they are beautiful, and so is the landscape. Your adventure is really one of a kind. You must feel so grateful to be able to experience all of this.
We appreciate your questions, Crystal. Apparently by 1947 there were 31 takhi in captivity, of which 12 would breed. An additional mare was captured in Mongolia and added to this very small breeding population. At this point, there was a serious concern that a genetic bottleneck – a lack of genetic diversity – among the few remaining horses would lead to their demise, as over time inbreeding typically creates weakened offspring. Aware of this problem, since the 1960s scientists have been carefully selecting breeding mates for the maximum genetic diversity.
In any event, the early breeding program was successful. As the captive population began to grow, some of them were released onto protected reserves in Germany and The Netherlands. An international push to attempt reintroduction into Mongolia ensued.
Initial attempts to reintroduce takhi to the wild were rough. Winters here can be extreme, and they took a toll. But the selective breeding was working, and over time hardier and hardier horses were available for release. In 1997, takhi began successfully breeding in their new, wild environs.
There are so many inspiring aspects to this story, beginning with the international cooperation this effort reflects. Also heartening is that in a country where poaching is out of control, (see our article Mongolia’s Impressive Red Deer, people are leaving the takhi alone. These horses have become a source of great national pride for Mongolia.
A similar story we are following with great interest is the status of river otters in Japan. The subspecies that once thrived there is now, unfortunately, extinct. But a joint Russian-Scottish-Japanese effort is looking at the feasibility of reintroducing a the closely related Eurasian otter to a reserve in Hokkaido. We wrote briefly about these otters for the blog Fledgling Philatelist. We’re happy others are interested in these issues. Jack & Barbra
Your response is wonderful. Thank for for sharing all that. It is a tremendous success story!