As a kid, I was fascinated by the 17,000 year old cave paintings depicting horses that would eventually be known as 'Przewalski's horse.' During the late 1800's, foreign expeditions hired local Mongolians to capture 88 wild Przewalski's foals from the Gobi Desert to be sent to animal dealers in Europe. With the introduction of firearms for hunting, the Przewalski's horse eventually became extinct in the wild, with the last horse spotted in 1969. In 1975, a plan was hatched to re-establish the Przewalski's horse to it's homeland in Mongolia. Five reserves were created in the Netherlands and Germany, and a breeding program was established from the horses in captivity: descendants of the wild foals caught in the late 1800's. On June 5th 1992, World Environment Day, 15 Przewalski's horses were successfully transplanted to Hustai National Park in Mongolia. Since that date, additional horses have been re-introduced into the park every 2 years. Today there are more than 350 Przewalski's horses once again roaming the Mongolian steppes, with more than 30 breeding harems. In Mongolia the horses are known as 'takhi', which means 'spirit'. It was my lifetime dream to see these horses~ not in a zoo, but in the wild where they belonged.
A world of thanks to Nora Livingstone and Animal Experience International for providing the path to make it happen in the most meaningful way I could ever imagine. I signed on to the 'eco-volunteer' program in Mongolia’s Hustai National Park, and was joined by my mates Teaghan O'Grady and Trudy Robertson. For two full weeks, each morning at dawn we emerged from our yurt to the waiting van that would take us deep into the Mongolian steppes. Our guide was 21 year old 'Seke', born in Ulanbaataar Mongolia, an affable leader with a quick eye for spotting a harem of Przewalski's horses in the hills. The first time we saw the wild horses was a true gift: one of the park's largest harems was ascending the steppes after quenching their thirst from the river below. One dominant stallion ('reddish dun colour'), with 9 mares (lighter in colour) and 2 foals (white). Stocky, muscular horses on the smallish side, with leg stripes, a dorsal stripe, brushcut mane and no forelock. They were the cave paintings in real life. It was a moment I will never forget.
Together with eco-volunteers from France and Brussels, each small group was assigned a specific harem to follow for the next four hours. Harems could be as small as two horses (a stallion and mare) or as large as 20 animals, including one stallion, several mares and foals, and colts not quite old enough to be unceremoniously kicked out of the group by the dominant stallion. With the sun barely greeting the day, our trio jumped out of the van on the dusty road each morning, armed with a GPS, anemometer, clipboard. We followed our assigned harem of horses. If they were on the move, we were on the move. If they contentedly grazed quietly, we did too (we ate our sandwich and chocolate bar of the day). Every 10 minutes we recorded our satellite position, wind speed, temperature, and made notes about the horses' activity; data would be shared with biologists working to ensure the success of the re-introduction program.
We also took the time to breathe it all in, with a 360 degree view of nothing human, just miles and miles of stark grassy slopes, patches of birch trees, giant boulders and the occasional herd of red deer off in the distance. We weren't sure if the deer were a mile away or a hundred miles away. Each morning we established the mandatory 200 metre buffer between ourselves and the horses (thankful to the Nikon gods for creating what I affectionately called 'Lens-zilla', my 200-500mm telephoto lens)! And each morning our assigned harem reacted differently to our presence. If the stallion didn't give us a second glance, the mares and foals didn't either. These were the easy days. But there were also times when we watched our van disappear down the dusty road, then turned our attention to the job at hand and began the trek after our horses, only to see that the stallion had decided to run, run, run like the wind, with mares and foals close behind, within seconds our entire harem gone. Disappeared. Whenever this happened we would usually console ourselves with a chocolate bar.
The collaboration between international scientists and caring citizens to bring these wild horses back to their homeland gives us hope for the future of other vulnerable species. This project was not so much about horses as it was about our own humanity.
On my final morning as an eco-volunteer, from my perch on a giant boulder atop the Mongolian steppes, I could see a harem navigating a rocky ledge below. A foal had decided this was a good spot to lie down and rest. The stallion halted the group then took his position as protector, standing watch like an emperor over his kingdom. As the sun continued to rise I could see a cloud of dust in the distance. More wild horses, galloping across the grasslands just as they had done for centuries.
At that moment all was right in the world.