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Ghosts of the Gobi

Can a rare species of wild horse help revive long-suffering Mongolia?

HUSTAI NURUU, MONGOLIA -- The muscular, sand-colored horses nuzzle each other and graze this windswept steppe with a nonchalance that belies the passions and follies they have inspired in humans for centuries.

The takh -- the word means "spirit" in Mongolian; the plural is takhi -- is the last of the three species of wild horses from which today's domesticated horses descended about 250,000 years ago, scientists say. These zebra-like equines, which once roamed across much of Asia and Europe, have long fascinated humans, who immortalized them in cave paintings and revered them in song and rhyme."

This is no ordinary steed/But an incarnate star indeed/When I tap his steely frame, what's found?/I seem to hear a metallic sound" -- so goes a 7th-century Tang dynasty poem thought to be paying tribute to the grace and power of the takh.

Though takhi began disappearing in Europe almost 10,000 years ago, when the first humans learned to farm and the earth's population rapidly expanded, they continued to thrive in Mongolia's remote steppes and deserts. With their feisty temperament, sturdy build, and uniquely striped forelegs, they acquired a mythical status. One legend says Genghis Khan and his army rode takhi to conquer the world.

By 1969 takhi became extinct in the wild even in Mongolia, thanks to a diminishing habitat, indiscriminate hunting, and enthusiasts who captured them for research and the thrill of possession. The spirit of the Gobi, it was said, had become the ghost of the Gobi.

Now, as Mongolia itself is clawing its way back to life after 300 years of foreign domination, a multinational effort is underway to take takhi from zoos across the world and reintroduce them in the Mongolian wild. Since 1992 about 120 takhi have been returned to the steppes, and about 120 foals have been born in the wild, says Munkhbat Sirindorch, the Worldwide Fund for Nature's takhi project coordinator in Mongolia's capital, Ulaan Baatar.

The takh, which emerged as a distinct breed about 5 million years ago, is the only surviving link between the first horse, the Hyracotherium, which emerged 55 million years ago, and the 60 million domestic horses that populate the world today. It is also a vital link to Mongolia's traditional culture, which venerates the horse much as agricultural societies like India venerate the cow. "The Secret History of the Mongols," the country's national epic, contains thousands of tales, poems, songs, and proverbs about horses, the "emerald" of all animals.

But when Mongolia fell under Manchu control in 1691, its culture was "ridiculed and trampled upon," says Baabar, a historian in Ulaan Baatar and an adviser to Prime Minister Elbegdorj Tsakhia. (Like many Mongolians, Baabar uses only one name.) Shortly after winning independence in 1911 with Russian assistance, Mongolia fell under Soviet domination. During the 1930s Stalin ordered the killing of hundreds of thousands of Mongolian intellectuals, priests, and nobles. Cyrillic was made the official script of the country and thousands of Buddhist temples were destroyed. Many nomads were settled into "new towns" and banned from even telling their children certain ancient fables.

When the Soviet Union withdrew in 1990, a resurgence of cultural pride swept the country. Mongolians sang once-forbidden songs, prayed to once-forbidden gods, and gave the once-forbidden name of Genghis Khan to everything from sons to corner stores and hotels. Today, Mongolia is a democracy with a growing market economy, and glass towers loom over Ulaan Baatar's car-choked streets. But the horse remains the emblem of the country, and horses remain the primary mode of transportation for many nomads (who are 35 percent of the population), even though many now own Japanese dirt bikes and Russian jeeps. Many urban Mongolians teach their children to ride by the age of three, and riders from across the country show off their skills to ecstatic crowds at the Naadam sporting festival, held every July to celebrate Mongolia's independence.

Mongolia is in a period of national reawakening, and the restoration of the takh fuels that feeling, says Bat Suren, who works with an international NGO in Ulaan Baatar. "We love the takhi. . .. Seeing them [come back to life] gives us joy and hope."

The bumpy ride from Ulaan Baatar to this national park 56 miles west of the capital is like a trip in a time machine. The noise and grime of the city soon slips away, giving way to small towns where tethered horses stand outside rugged timber buildings. A few miles farther on lies nomad country, where life exists as it did centuries ago. No permanent settlements have ever taken root here, and in place of villages there are scattered round cloth tents called ghers. The only sign of human presence is the occasional herd of goats, sheep, or cows shepherded by shaggy dogs and mounted herdsmen clad in dels, long silk shirts worn over baggy trousers.

Each herder clan is following a specific seasonal grazing route established by their ancestors and maintained through an unwritten code. But with grazing areas diminished by desertification, this system has come under increasing strain in recent years, often resulting in fisticuffs between competing clans, says Dumdenbat, a young sheep herder.

But there has been little resistance here or elsewhere in Mongolia to the creation of this 50,000-acre wildlife park in the middle of prime grazing land, which in addition to takhi is also home to hundreds of varieties of rare flowers, birds, and animals such as the Asian lynx cat. Asked how he feels about the preserve, Dumdenbat is concise. "It's good," he says with brusque shyness before thundering off on his tawny mare.

Inside the preserve, which is jointly funded by the Dutch and Mongolian governments and managed by NGOs from both countries, the scene is as it would have been in a time before time. Two harems of about seven takhi each saunter through streams that wind through a landscape of seemingly endless fields and undulating hills. The horses have a short, spiky mane, and their russet hue contrasts brilliantly with the cobalt sky. Though their pot-bellies give them a lazy, contented look, they are hyper-alert, tucking their black tails between their hind legs and cantering away at the slightest disturbance.

Such skittishness has served the takhi well. Today's domestic horses (which diverged from takhi and two other equine sub-species, the forest horse and tarpan) were first domesticated some 6,000 years ago. But the takhi were almost impossible to break.

Vague reports about the mysterious takhi reached Europe in the 1420s. But it was only in 1881 that the Polish-Russian explorer Nikolai Przewalski "discovered" the takhi after a local Mongolian chieftain presented him a takh skull and hide. Collectors soon followed. "Suddenly people from Germany and Russia were coming here to steal horses and take them back to zoos in Europe," says Pagama, 26, a manager at the preserve. "Because they wanted the babies they had to kill many of the mares which greatly reduced the population."

Takhi numbers decreased further following attempts by Soviet-era leaders to settle Mongolia's nomads in new towns during the 1930s. The herders were forced to graze their animals over and over on the same patch of land, often destroying it and thereby shrinking the habitat of takhi. In the 1940s, Kazak rebels operating on the Mongolian-Chinese border hunted takhi so extensively that there were only 31 takhi alive in 1945, according to the Foundation for Preservation and Protection of the Przewalski Horse, the lead Dutch NGO involved with the reintroduction project. In the 1960s, unusually severe winters killed more takhi. A Mongolian researcher spotted the last wild takh at a desert water source called Guntamag Us in 1969.

Ironically, the approximately 1,400 takhi in zoos around the world became the best bet for regenerating the species. In the mid-1970s a Dutch couple, Inge and Jan Bouman, began to breed takhi for release into the wild. Since the takhi in zoos were highly inbred, the couple studied the genealogy of each horse before selecting a mate for it. But initial attempts at reintroduction did not go smoothly. Many of the first horses brought in 1992 to a preserve at Takhin Tal in the Dzungarian Gobi, about 650 miles southwest of Ulaan Baatar, died from the bitter cold of sleet storms called dzguds. Others were taken by wolves.

In some cases, "the horses had not been adequately acclimatized," says Sirindorch, the project coordinator from Ulaan Baatar. Those over 3 years old couldn't learn to find food in the spare vegetation or shelter from the cold. Takh stallions also surprised researchers by the ferocity with which they fought each other for food, water, and mares. Victorious stallions build harems of about five to seven mares, leaving the losers in these battles to die from hunger and thirst. Finally, a tick-borne disease reduced reproductive rates, endangering the entire project.

A 1993 United Nations report laid much of the blame for this mismanagement on Christian Oswald, a German trader of exotic meats who had initiated the project in partnership with the Mongolian government. Oswald was sidelined in the mid-1990s and Takhin Tal was overhauled. Captive-breed takhi were now trained how to survive in the wild by keeping them in enclosed compounds for long periods, and every stallion and his harem was given a separate area to avoid infighting.

The same is done here, at Hustai Nuruu, where the first takhi came in 1998, and also at Khomiin Tal, a new takh reintroduction site at the Khar-Us Nuur National Park 750 miles west of Ulaan Baatar that was established as a joint project between the French and Mongolian governments last year.

Despite the 240 takhi now roaming free in Mongolia, "it's still too early to declare a victory," says Jaga, a guide at Hustai Nuruu. Wolves kill some takhi every year, and harsh winters, which freeze the ground and water so solid that even the animals' sharp hooves cannot break through, could wipe them out all over again.

Another looming problem is something Pagama delicately calls "hybridization." Horses will be horses, and takhi -- which have 66 chromosomes, 2 more than their domestic counterparts -- seem quite willing to mate with feral horses (domestic horses living in the wild). The resultant species, which sports 65 chromosomes, could end up diluting the takh strain. If the population rises above 500, the horses could become difficult to monitor -- though "this would be a good problem to have," says Pagama.

With scores of tourists, both local and foreign, coming here every day to see the takhi, the project is proving to be a good example of eco-tourism, says Sirindorch. But that's just the icing on the cake. "The horse is the symbol of our state, our people," he explains. "In the restoration (of the takh) we can feel our own spiritual restoration."

Jehangir S. Pocha is a Globe correspondent in Beijing.

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