I’m greeted by a wide smile of pearly white teeth as Derjsuren graciously invites me into his work-in-progress home. Today he is painting it blue to match the endless blue skies of Hustai National Park, Mongolia. Hustai National Park is the site of a successful reintroduction of Takhi, or Asian wild horse – the only living species of truly wild horse. Derjsuren is a park protection ranger and his challenges in support of conservation are huge. His daily activities match the seasons. In July, when endangered Takhi foals are born, he monitors them day and night. July through September, he protects marmots and red deer from illegal hunting. In the winter, he chases domestic horses out of the park to prevent them from transferring disease or interbreeding with the wild Tahki herds.
I was surprised to learn that poaching of Siberian marmots for their fur is a huge issue and the park is one of the last remaining refuges for the species. Even though hunting of marmots is illegal, hunting is rampant. The pelts are sold to Russians in the city who make hats. Indeed, as we were searching for Takhi, our eyes glimpsed a prone figure out on the landscape. We encountered three poachers and called in to the nearest ranger station. In the park it is up to the rangers to interpret the laws and decide on the penalty for the poachers. Today since the men had not yet killed any wildlife the fine was low, about $70. There are twelve rangers in the park, their salary is $180 per month, and they are the front line of conservation.
Dr. Kate Jenks, Conservation Biologist at the Minnesota Zoo, is in Mongolia 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.