Get into any car in Mongolia you will see a blue sash tied between the front window visors. Blue scarves are knotted around posts and propped up with rock piles to indicate special prayer locations. In the countryside, blue is the favored color for painting concrete buildings and “ger” (traditional house) doors. All of these are reminders that Mongolia is the “Land of the Blue Sky.”
Bringing up the image of an expansive clear blue sky only begins to express the scale of the landscape. Many people in the country are still nomadic– roaming the vast grasslands with no fences and living in traditional felt-covered gers. The roads are not paved and they are not even gravel; they are impressions in the grass or dust where other cars have come before. And there is not one clear path. New roads branch off to the left and right to swing around temporary obstructions, holes, flooded areas, or deep sand. To navigate across grassland with no landmarks, you head for the description of a ragged peak of a far off mountain range or the location of “the only ger with a tree.”
We were driving from ger to ger to ask for directions, driving under an endless blue sky and across endless grassland to the Great Golbi B Strictly Protected Area in southwest Mongolia. When Przewalski’s horses went extinct in the wild in the 1960’s, this was the place of the last recorded sighting.
The Great Golbi B Strictly Protected Area is 3,475 square miles of stark, beautiful, isolated, and vast desert steppe. This sprawling area is equal to the size of Puerto Rico! It is now a second Przewalski’s horse reintroduction site with a current population of nearly 90 horses. To find Przewalski’s horse harems, we drove hours across sand, bumbling up and down, left and right as the vehicle threw up a plume of dust behind us. The area is dominated by plains, but ringed by breathtaking snow-peaked mountains. It was with the backdrop of these mountains that we glimpsed the largest Przewalski’s harem at dusk. A distant dust plume caught our eye and materialized into a perfect line of galloping horses—completely free, truly wild, Przewalski’s horses.
That fraction of an “awe” moment underscored the significance of meaningful support for these horses in the wild. The Minnesota Zoo is working to develop partnerships and eventually initiate conservation efforts that we hope will someday increase the herds of Przewalski’s horses roaming through the “Land of the Blue Sky.”
Dr. Kate Jenks, Conservation Biologist at the Minnesota Zoo, just returned from Mongolia where she was exploring options for the Zoo to become involved in the conservation of the Asian wild horse (also known as Takhi, or Przewalski’s horse), in partnership with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. Once considered “extinct in the wild”, these horses were reintroduced into Mongolia from a zoo-based breeding program. The Minnesota Zoo currently coordinates the Asian Wild Horse Species Survival Plan.