The national drink is milk tea (with salt!). I spent my first night in a ger (what’s that?!). When I look up I see an unending sea of undulating green hills. Where am I?
I am in Hustai Nuruu National Park, Mongolia and staying in a ger, a traditional round Mongolian home. As a conservation biologist at Minnesota Zoo, I am on an expedition to learn how the Zoo can support Takhi (Przewalski’s horse) conservation. Step one is seeing the horses in the wild.
In Mongolian, hustai nuruu means “mountains covered with birch trees.” Indeed, there are small patches of birch forests on the northern slopes of the mountains. The rest of the landscape of the park is characterized by a central mountain chain of granite rock and a hilly landscape of steppe grassland vegetation as far as the eye can see. This is the site of a successful reintroduction of the Takhi, the only living species of truly wild horse. Loss of habitat, hunting, and competition with grazing livestock resulted in these wild horses going extinct in the 1960s. After a successful breeding and then reintroduction program in cooperation with zoos, today nearly 300 horses thrive in the wild in Hustai. In fact, 82 of the horses are descendants of a stallion that was once in the care of Minnesota Zoo. And I set out to find them.
With this much open space and the expanse of green grass and blue sky, the eye tends to blur it all together into a continuous unbroken landscape. The only sound is the rustle of grasses and whip of the harsh wind across your face. And then, as you are scanning, you subconsciously become alert to something different. Our first view of the Takhi was a speck on the hillside, a little break in the landscape, an underbelly of white. Takhi are very social animals and the herd members graze, drink, rest, play, and travel together, all guided by a lead stallion. Younger stallions often travel alone for months or years before they are accepted by a bachelor group or herd their own group of mares when they reach about five years of age. We hiked down into the valley and then up the mountain approaching the horses in a wide arc staying downwind. We eventually crept within 100 feet of a harem: 9 mares, 3 foals, and a stallion. Step one complete.