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Saving the World’s Only True Wild Horses

The Przewalski's horse would have gone extinct were it not for the obsessive devotion of three young Dutch activists.

ByRachel NuwerNOVA NextNOVA Next
Saving the World’s Only True Wild Horses

In the golden glow of sunset, a herd of wild horses nibbles on tufts of needlegrass swaying in a chilly breeze. It’s late August, but here in Mongolia the air is already autumnal. Despite their short coats, however, the horses don’t seem to mind. The Przewalski’s horse, as they are called, are specially evolved to deal with this climate. Their beige and black coats—reminiscent of Paleolithic animals depicted in the Lascaux cave paintings —will soon begin to fluff out in preparation for the extreme Siberian-like winter.

It’s late in Mongolia’s tourist season, but about a dozen visitors have made the bumpy two-hour journey from the capital, solely to see the horses here at Hustai National Park . They gather about 200 meters away and watch the elegant animals as they graze.

Suddenly, the serene scene is broken: a stallion rears, graphically mounting one of the females in his harem. Just as the horses are undaunted by the cold, they likewise don’t seem to mind putting on an explicit show for human voyeurs. This obviously isn’t their first time at the tourist rodeo. The crowd goes wild.

Born Free

Even without such a memorable display, catching sight of a Przewalski’s horse at Hustai National Park is an exceptional experience unto itself. This is partly because of the endangered species’ unique standing: it is the only remaining horse species on the planet that has managed to evade domestication. Mention wild horses to an American and she might think of powerful, beautiful stallions galloping across the Nevada plains.

Males only mate with receptive females usually early in the summer to provide ample time for rearing young in the warmest months. This pairing at the end of August was unusually late in the season.

But the Western U.S.’s mustangs—along with all of the other horse populations most people typically associate with being wild—are not, in fact, technically so. Instead, Australia’s Brumby mobs, Scotland’s hardy highland herds, and Virginia’s beach-dwelling broncos are all untamed descendants of domestic horses that broke free of their reins. They might live as wild animals now, but like feral dogs, they all trace their heritage back to a complacent population of corral-dwelling, human-ferrying livestock. We could, indeed, ride them someday.

Man, however, has never broken the Przewalski’s horse. For thousands of years, this hardy species roamed the Central Asian steppes, bearing no riders and knowing no fences. If other horses are the equivalent of feral dogs, then the Przewalski’s horse is a wolf. In its native Mongolia, where it goes by the name takhi, it is known as the father of horses. Mongolians regard the takhi as spiritual, holy animals, and for millennia they largely left them alone.

If other horses are the equivalent of feral dogs, then the Przewalski’s horse is a wolf.

Evading domestication, however, nearly condemned the takhi to an even darker fate: extinction. After being reduced to a handful of inbred zoo captives, today around 330 horses are back in their native steppe, while several other smaller populations live in the Gobi desert and in China. The species’ salvation required one of the most intense wildlife management interventions ever pulled off, and today the takhi’s story is hailed as one of conservation’s greatest successes.

But after skirting so close to the abyss, experts have learned their lesson. The takhi might be the world’s last wild species of horse, but they are never far from the watchful eyes of their human protectors. Like much of the world’s rare and cherished biodiversity, we don’t dare let them out of our sight lest they finally and definitively disappear.

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Love at First Sight

The trouble all began in the late 19 th century, when the Western world finally took note of the takhi. Nikolai Przewalski, a Polish-born explorer serving as a colonel in the Russian army, “discovered” the horses during an 1878 expedition to the Mongolian-Chinese frontier. Naturally, Przewalski named the horse after himself, and when he returned to the West, word quickly spread among zoos, adventurers, and curio collectors about the mysterious wild horses.

Soon, trappers began arriving in Mongolia. Like Peter S. Beagle’s King Haggard rounding up every last unicorn, the trappers began picking Mongolia and China clean of their Przewalski’s horses. Traders hired locals to chase the herds until the foals were too exhausted to keep up, and then killed any protective stallions or mares that tried to defend their young. Sometimes, the traders returned to Europe with nearly 100 foals, most of which soon died from trauma or malnutrition.

In the 1940s and 1950s, pressures on the horses mounted as conflicts broke out over China’s recognition of Outer Mongolia’s independence, and Russia and China deployed armies into the areas where the remaining horses lived. Half a century’s worth of hunting pressure and intrusions turned out to be too much for the species to bear. In 1969, locals spotted a lone stallion roaming in the Gobi desert. After that, the takhi were never again seen in their homeland. The world’s wild horses were gone.

Evening on Hustai's grassy slopes

The takhi were soon declared extinct in the wild, but around 350 horses—living evidence of the human desire to possess, even at the cost of an entire species—were still holed up in zoos and private pens around the world. In 1972, two young Dutch newlyweds named Jan and Inge Bouman came across a few of those remaining animals. Their honeymoon travels had brought them to Czechoslovakia, where around a dozen Przewalski’s horses lived in a crowded chain-linked pen at the Prague Zoo. “Oh no, the conditions were not good,” recalls Inge Bouman, decades later. “I don’t want to criticize zoos, but at that time Prague was awful.”

Bouman’s new husband, Jan, already possessed a deep affinity for horses. Jan had “an ugly stepmother” growing up, Bouman explains, and as a child he preferred to sneak out to the stables and sleep between the legs of his pony rather than remain in the house. “Jan was a man who has always been an animal lover,” she says.

So when he saw the conditions the Przewalski’s horses were subjected to at the zoo, Bouman remembers that her husband was overcome by a desire to free those animals from their dismal pen and return them to their native Mongolia. Rather than write his feelings off as wishful thinking, however, the two began devising a way to turn Jan’s fantasy into a reality.

“This was a unique trip, during a unique moment in our lives,” Bouman explains. “At this time we were discussing everything in the world: What do we want to do? What’s most important in our lives? Should we do everything normally, or try to start something new?”

Normality, it turned out, would not factor into their marriage. They decided to invest all of their extra time, energy, and money in trying to save the Przewalski’s horse, and talked their friend Annette Groeneveld into helping, too. Looking back, though, Bouman admits that they had no idea of the magnitude of what they were taking on.

“We were of course naïve about the power politics.”

With lofty aspirations kindled, they began visiting zoos around Europe and the U.S. in an attempt to create a definitive studbook—a collection of individual pedigrees and demographic histories—for all of the remaining Przewalski’s horses. Even in the 1970s, when our knowledge of the genome was relatively limited, Jan knew that maximizing genetic diversity was key for ensuring the species’ survival, thanks to years of experience from working with horses on his family’s farm. But the Boumans and Groeneveld faced a formidable challenge: just several hundred takhi remained—most of which had been born in captivity through inbred parents—and their human owners were not always eager to cooperate with do-gooder strangers. “We were of course naïve about the power politics, and of the fact that many zoos, especially those in Eastern Europe, earned a lot of money by having this very threatened species,” Bouman says. “They didn’t want to have a cooperation or an exchange.”

But William Conway, the director of the Bronx Zoo in New York, did understand what the Boumans and Groeneveld were attempting to achieve. Under his encouragement, Jan presented data at a zookeeper’s conference showing that inbreeding of Przewalski’s horses was correlated with early death and sterility in offspring. He emphasized that breeding pairs should not be selected based on looks but instead on lineage and proposed creating an international policy for breeding and managing the species. Finally—and most radically—he announced that some of the horses should live and be bred in a semi-natural reserve, with the ultimate goal of reintroducing them into the wild. Through fundraising, he intended to purchase 12 horses that he believed represented the most genetically diverse individuals remaining.

While some zoos began following the “Bouman system”—consulting the studbook prior to breeding any of their horses—they weren’t nearly as willing to give up either their animals or the chance to claim credit for saving the species. So several zoo directors decided that they would take charge of the studbook without the involvement of the Boumans or Groeneveld. The full scope of the betrayal hit home when the director leading this charge presented a near-exact copy of Jan’s original proposal at another conference, passing it off as though it were his own. Soon after, Jan suffered a near-fatal heart attack. While he recovered, he and his wife seriously considered giving up on the horses. “We thought ‘What are we doing? Why don’t we just live our lives normally and love each other,’ ” Bouman says. “We said to ourselves, ‘Let’s just stop.’ ”

The couple might have thrown in the towel then and there, condemning the remaining takhi to live out their lives behind bars, slowly fading into inbred extinction. But just as the Boumans and Groeneveld were making plans to move on with their lives, Niels Halbertsman, director of the World Wildlife Fund Netherlands, decided to take up their cause.

With Halbertsman’s help, they acquired the funds necessary to purchase the horses they wanted, which they did through a middle man, so the zoos would not know that their horses would be going to the Baumans. Then, in 1980, they secured a small plot of land east of Rotterdam, near the German border. The Naturepark, as they called it, welcomed its first Przewalski’s horse in 1981, a stallion named Rondo. Over the next few years, they expanded into into several other reserves in the Netherlands and Germany, and breeding efforts went well, Meanwhile, Groeneveld rallied and trained volunteers and managed the foundation’s funds. While 22% of foals born in zoos died, just 7% of the Boumans’ newborns did not survive.

Long-Awaited Homecoming

While the horses were settling in, the Boumans were busy building relationships with researchers in Mongolia. For years, Mongolia had suffered under Soviet rule, but in 1990, the country began moving toward independence. Reintroducing the takhi served as a fitting symbol of freedom and national pride. “For Mongolians, it was the time for them to speak of Genghis Khan again, of bringing back their own writings and literature—all things that had been forbidden in Communist times,” Bouman says. “And what could be better than bringing the takhi back, too?”

Mongolian scientists soon identified two areas they thought suitable for reintroductions: one just west of the capital, which later became Hustai National Park, and another in the far south, in the Gobi desert. Mongolia, however, did not have the money to pay for the project, and by this time, the WWF Netherlands had appointed a new director—one who no longer wanted to support the horses. But the Dutch government stepped up, providing the money needed to transport the horses to Mongolia, along with basic materials like fences and monitoring equipment.

The official entrance and parking lot of Hustai National Park belies the park's importance, but it's sufficient for the few concurrent visitors it receives.

On June 5, 1992, the first horses arrived in Hustai National Park, a protected area which had been created exclusively for their use. From the beginning, the takhi were allowed to roam free across the steppe, and new arrivals were shipped over from Europe every other year. They soon began breeding on their own, too. As years passed, other native species previously missing from the landscape—including red deer, Mongolian gazelle, argali sheep, and wolves—also returned.

Jan passed away in 1996, just after the third transfer of horses to Mongolia. He had lived to see his vision realized, but his final two decades had been marked by constant struggle. Several years after her husband’s death, Bouman began reevaluating her own life. “All of our money went to the horses, as did all evenings, weekends, and holidays,” she says. “We had no savings, and lived very modestly, with second-hand cars and used furniture.” (She laughs when reminiscing about what people in Mongolia thought their lifestyle was like: “They all thought we must be very rich.”)

The park's small museum—housed in a traditional ger—details the parks' ecology and the horses' evolution and biology, their near-extinction, and their triumphant return to Mongolia.

“I suddenly had the feeling I wanted to have a bit of a life,” she continues. “Because life is so nice—there’s so many beautiful things—and I don’t want to work always.”

So Bouman, now 72, gradually began lessening her involvement with the horses and shutting down the non-profit that she, Jan, and Groeneveld had built. Today, when people contact her about the horses, she passes those requests on to the Mongolian staff. “We did our best, and you cannot do more than that,” she says. “At some point, you have to give it over to someone else.”

A New Champion

Luckily, the Boumans and Groeneveld found someone who was just as obsessed with the Przewalski horse as they had been. Usukhjargal Dorj grew up as “a total countryside boy” in Central Mongolia, but eventually found his way to the capital to study biology. While working on a master’s degree on steppe raptors, his advisor showed him an announcement for a temporary position as a wildlife biologist at Hustai. “I came here 11 years ago and have been here ever since,” he says.

Dorj talks at a lightning pace, and his gaze sharpens with serious intensity behind emo-rimmed glasses when he speaks of the horses—which he will gladly do, unbroken, for several hours. He is currently working on a doctorate on the takhi reintroductions at Hustai, although he admits the likelihood of actually finishing that degree is slim: “The problem is that I need to be at the university to finish, but I also need to be here to monitor the horses.” This is compounded by the fact that Dorj refuses to install the internet at Hustai—a location that is also too remote to receive cell signals—because he wants no distractions for himself or the other staff from their work with the horses.

The staff accommodations at Hustai National Park house rangers, scientists, cooks, and maintenance personnel.

Dorj’s all-consuming dedication, however, is perhaps the park’s greatest asset. Hustai is beautiful, but it is not a glamorous place for humans to live, and money is always tight. Yet he has no plans to leave, ensuring that the takhi will be steadfastly looked after for years to come—so as long as the funding doesn’t run out.

Dorj’s job includes figuring out how to pay for those animals. In 2012, as previously agreed upon, the Netherlands stopped funding Hustai, leaving it to the staff to make ends meet. Hustai is the only National Park in Mongolia that operates independently of the government, but despite the stability that government support would provide, Dorj is adamant that it stays that way. “Every four years politics change,” he says. “So if you want to work as long as possible on one goal, it’s best to try and be separate from policy.”

“The most important thing,” he emphasizes, “is this horse.”

A group of takhi at sunset

Bouman—speaking from experience—agrees. “The problem is that, for two or three years, [governments or charities] will do lots of work and be very helpful,” she says. “But then someone leaves or plans change and it all stops.”

Shifting agendas, however, don’t work well for conservation projects, which often require perpetual commitment. “When we talk about a species ‘being out of the woods,’ there really is no such thing because saving species is essentially a forever-type problem,” says Steve Monfort, director of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, and former species coordinator for the North American population of Przewalski’s horses. “Continued management of animals like the Przewalski’s horse will be necessary so that species and biodiversity can exist in an increasingly human-dominated world.”

“If you want to work as long as possible on one goal, it’s best to try and be separate from policy.”

China, which has opened its own breeding center in Kalamaili Nature Reserve in the country’s far northwest, exemplifies just how far these management regimes sometimes have to go. No tourists are allowed to visit, and in winter most of the takhi are rounded up and kept behind fences so that they can be given ample food. This system also serves the interests of local herdsmen, who graze their cattle within the park during the difficult cold months. “Wildlife conservation is very important, but so is human life,” says Weikang Yang, deputy director of the Department of Biodiversity at the Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography. The takhi themselves are doing well, he adds, but their reintroduction into the wild in China has only been partially effective since, at least for now, they have to spend a significant portion of the year in human care.

But indeed, even in Hustai and the Gobi where takhi roam free year round, the animals are by no means on their own. Rangers constantly patrol the park borders, ensuring poachers and domestic horses stay out, and—like a watchful shepherd—Dorj keeps a vigilant eye on his takhi flocks, quickly noting pregnancies, births and deaths, as well as acting as a sort of horse bodyguard. When he recently spotted a jeep parked just beyond a “Do Not Enter” sign in the park, he immediately veered his own vehicle off the dirt road and politely but firmly scolded the rule-breaking tourists. The “Do Not Enter” signs, he explained, are there for a reason.

Planet Zoo?

The takhi aren’t the only species around today that requires some sort of human care regime. Wildlife management ranges from simply keeping an eye on a national park’s inhabitants to undertaking extreme interventions such as captive breeding. “Even in places like Mongolia, where just three million people live, we’re seeing a need for greater and greater management,” says Peter Zahler, the Asia program deputy director at the Wildlife Conservation Society.

In the coming years, our role as wilderness babysitters is certain to grow, Zahler says, with climate change impacting every ecosystem on the planet and human populations reaching new heights. The scope of the threats we thrust upon species has never been greater. Now that humans have a hand in nearly every natural system on the planet, wildness will only persist if we let it and only if we keep a vigilant eye on it to ensure we don’t somehow still manage to mess that up. “If left unchecked, we’re going to continue to whittle away at wilderness and move toward game over,” Monfort says. “It’s kind of in our hands to decide.”

Sunrise at Hustai National Park

More often than not, however, preserving our natural heritage frequently rests on the shoulders of individuals. Without the efforts of the Boumans, Groeneveld, Dorj, and others, the Przewalski’s horse almost certainly would not be here today. “People often ask me how we decide the winners and losers when it comes to species conservation,” Monfort says. “But what it really boils down to is finding a champion who decides to pick up the mantle and say, ‘Let’s get this done.’ ”

Indeed the Przewalski’s horse could have been ended up like one of its relatives, the Eurasian wild horse. It, too, was reduced to captive populations after going extinct in the wild. But unlike the takhi, no one came to its rescue. The last captive died at a Russian estate in 1909. The Przewalski’s horse was just lucky enough to attract the attention of a newly wed couple who happened to stop by the zoo. Otherwise, it, too, would be gone. “It’s not the charisma of the species, it’s the people,” Monfort says. “Without people to lead the charge, conservation does not work.”

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Photo credits: Rachel Nuwer

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