Despite the severe winter of 2009, which saw the population fall from 137 to 48, there are now some 90 takhis such as this one in Mongolia – out of a world population of 1,500, mostly in zoos. In the wild, their greatest danger is wolves, against which the mares form a defensive circle to protect their foals.
Mongolia – Fact Check

The horses shielded by folklore

Photo by Choups

Mongolia – Fact Check The horses shielded by folklore

The Mongol horse is descended from the wild Przewalski’s horse, which Mongolians call the “takhi”.

Gavin Haines
Gavin Haines Travel Writer

Most so-called wild herds, such as America’s mustangs, are domestic horses gone feral but riding or even training a takhi is almost impossible. Or, as a plaque at the Museum of Natural History in downtown Ulaanbaatar says: “Only the wind can ride Przewalski’s horses.”

“We believe that takhi are the ancestors of our domestic horses,” says Dashpurev Tsersendeleg, the deputy director of Hustai National Park Trust. “Takhi means worship – maybe its coincidence or maybe we named them with purpose.”

Hustai is about a two-hour drive from Ulaanbaatar if the traffic is favorable, which it never is. However, the drive is well worth the effort to see these ancient horses in the wild where they belong. I spot some standing skittishly on a ridge above me, looking down with bemusement at their visitor. Among them are some foals, a good sign as there are still precious few Przewalski’s horses in the world.

Indigenous to the steppes of Central Asia, they take their European name from Colonel Nikolai Przewalski, the Russian naturalist who is accredited as being the first person to study the species. The horses became extinct in the wild during the 1960s, when the ravages of habitat loss, hunting and a succession of harsh winters killed off the last remaining populations. However, a Dutch couple called Jan and Inge Bouman embarked on an ambitious project to reintroduce them to the steppe of Central Asia, which is now starting to pay off.

Hustai gained international recognition for its conservation efforts in 2002, when Unesco listed the 50,600-hectare park. It is home to approximately 630 species of plant, 217 species of bird and 44 species of mammal, including the Mongolian gazelle, lynx, red deer and grey wolf. However, it is the takhi that most come to see and with a stable population of 268 in the park, visitors have a good chance of spotting them.

The horses are also protected by criminal law; in 1993, the Mongolian Government declared Hustai National Park a Specially Protected Area in a move to safeguard the species living within it. “The takhi are wild animals and no one can use them for labor or other things like racing or milking,” says Dashpurev.

While the takhi roam free in such protected lands, their domesticated counterparts lead a tough existence at the hands of the Mongolian people; although the country’s nomads have access to cars, genuine horse power is the real driving force behind their extraordinary lives. Horses live outdoors all year round, even during the harsh winters, sustaining themselves on what grass they can find.

With more than 3 million, slightly more than Mongolia’s human population, they are the Swiss Army Knives of nomadic life; they are used for racing, shepherding cattle and traversing the countryside. Then, as they enter the twilight of their working lives, they are slaughtered for food. It is a grim end to a life of toil.

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