I woke up to the wind howling fierce and battering the side of my ger (a traditional Mongolian round house). The cloudless blue sky was deceiving. It can indicate a beautiful warm summer day. Instead, this is October in Mongolia. Is it possible to freeze your eyeballs? Of course it wasn’t truly THAT cold (we are not even into true winter yet), but only because I was lent a heavy traditional Mongolian wool jacket that fell to my feet. The jacket was essential for staying warm as I sped along a sandy, barren road on the back of a motorbike shortly after sunrise. Even then, patches of my skin froze: my cheekbones exposed above the scarf snug across my lower face, my earlobes that managed to poke out below my fleece hat, and the tiny ring of flesh around my ankles where my sock slid down and was no longer tucked over my long-underwear—numb.
Enduring the brutal weather is just one challenge we face working to save the Asian wild horse. The horses are not using the entire habitat in Hustai National Park and park management think that adding artificial water sources might help. But is that the best answer? The water could also increase the number of livestock that come into the park, leading to competition and overgrazing. How can we learn more? Sheep, cow, and goat “selfies”! We placed “camera-traps” at water sources across the park and the cameras automatically take photos of approaching animals…resulting in thousands of “selfie” photos a week per camera! From the photos we can learn how often wildlife and livestock visit the water and what time of day (or night). This is important to document to better understand the potential impact of adding artificial water sources. Thanks to the Minnesota Zoo Foundation and private donations (including donations made by guests and volunteers at the Minnesota Zoo), I was able to travel to Mongolia to set the groundwork and planning for more intensive research that will start in spring of 2016.
Dr. Kate Jenks, Conservation Biologist at the Minnesota Zoo, just returned from Mongolia where she began research to help save the 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 zoo-based breeding program. The Minnesota Zoo currently coordinates the Asian Wild Horse Species Survival Plan.