The weather in Mongolia is unpredictable at worst and constantly-changing at best. We can wake up in the morning to no wind, and then run into gusting winds in the part of the park where the horses are grazing. We can go to bed to a clear sky, bright stars, and calm, then wake up to a sand storm!
Our first few days in Hustai National Park, Mongolia, were gorgeous, with clear blue skies and temperatures that felt near 50°F. Working the field, I wore long-underwear, jeans, a T-shirt and sweatshirt, and didn’t even need my jacket. Then, on the 14th, we woke up to a snow storm; the wind howling and snow swirling in crazy white spirals outside our window. In April.
Dealing with the unexpected weather is just one of the joys of fieldwork. I am here with three other Minnesota Zoo staff to place GPS tracking collars on Asian wild horse mares (adult female horses) from 8 different harems (groups).
To find the horses, we drive with park rangers on motorbikes to get close to a harem. Then, Uuskhuu (Hustai National Park Director of Research and Training), Dr. Jim (Minnesota Zoo veterinarian), and I walk on foot. Uuskhuu has worked at the park for 13 years and knows every mare by name, easily listing off her age, behavioral tendencies, and history. His role is to know when to walk and when to stop as we slowly creep closer and closer to approach a mare. We walk parallel to the group and then stop if they seem even slightly agitated by our presence; walk and stop, walk, walk and stop, walk and stop. It can take anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours to slowly track a harem before we get within 90 feet and in place for a clean, clear shot.
To place a collar on a horse, we first need to immobilize them (give them a drug to safely anesthetize them). Minnesota Zoo veterinarian, Dr. Jim Rasmussen, uses a CO2 powered rifle (similar to a paint gun) to shoot a dart at a horse. In less than fifteen minutes, the horse is asleep.
At that point, our whole team quietly approaches and everyone has a job to do. I focus on placing a GPS collar around the horse’s neck, making sure the fit is right. Dr. Jim checks the horse’s breathing and temperature, and collects blood samples for genetic analysis. Tim takes measurements of the horses’ neck and body while also watching that the horse is sleeping peacefully. Taylor records all of this information on a datasheet and takes photographs. An observer may think the work is hurried and unorganized, but everyone knows their tasks and works as a cohesive team. Within 20 minutes, the horse wakes up and rejoins her harem.
The result is a horse with a bit of new jewelry, a new necklace. The GPS tracking collar will automatically fall off of the horse after two years. The collars collect information on the location of each horse every hour and help us monitor their movements. We want to learn how they use water sources and different areas of the park. We hope to gain information that will help us encourage the horses to expand into new areas of the park.
After months of planning and fundraising, our fieldwork was a huge success! We accomplished everything we set out to do. The next step is to dig in to analyze and interpret all of the data we will be gathering!
Dr. Kate Jenks, Conservation Biologist at the Minnesota Zoo, just returned from Mongolia where she led research to help save the endangered Asian wild horse (also known as Takhi, or Przewalski’s horse), in partnership with Hustai National Park and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. Once considered “extinct in the wild,” these horses were reintroduced into Mongolia from a captive breeding program. The Minnesota Zoo currently coordinates the North American zoo breeding program, the Asian Wild Horse Species Survival Plan.