Field Notes from Mongolia: Studying Przewalski's Horses

Racquel Ardisana, a senior animal care specialist at Habitat Africa, shares some field notes from Mongolia where she studied steppe ecology and reintroduction of Przewalski’s horses.

In June 2019, I set off on a great adventure. I departed from Chicago early one morning —two planes, one taxi, and several bumpy miles in an old Soviet van later I arrived in the central Mongolian steppe. As a graduate student in biology through Miami University’s Global Field Program, I was in Mongolia to learn about the ecology of the steppe ecosystem and the reintroduction of Przewalski’s horses to the wild. As part of my job as a senior animal specialist here at Chicago Zoological Society’s Brookfield Zoo, I work with Przewalski’s horses, so I was excited to learn more about the world’s last truly wild horses and the vital role zoos played in their return to the wild.

Sveltlana, our trusty Soviet van that took us off road, up rocky terrain, and even through a river.

My trip started at the remote research site of Pallas’s Cat Conservation Project located in Altanbulag. While there, my classmates and I spent our days in field classes studying the unique fauna and flora of the Mongolian-Manchurian grassland and our nights resting in gers, the traditional circular homes of Mongolian nomads.

Collecting data on the Mongolia’s native rodents by safely catching and releasing them from Sherman traps. When we caught an animal, we took measurements and recorded the species and sex of each individual. Then we released them in the same spots they were found. This data helps researchers study rodent populations and how they change over time. The Mongolian hamster, gray marmot, and Mongolian gerbil are just a few of the many species of rodents that live in the steppe.

Gers are the traditional home of Mongolia’s nomadic pastoralists.

I stayed in this ger while visiting the Pallas’s Cat Conservation Project. On our last day, we learned how to break down the ger and pack it up for travel. Mongolian pastoralists are nomadic, moving seasonally to make sure their livestock have plenty of grass to eat, so their homes must be portable.

At night, the kitchen ger became a makeshift lecture hall, where researchers like Dr. Bariushaa Munkhtsog of Pallas’s Cat Conservation Project and Irbis Mongolian Center gave us presentations on his research and steppe conservation.

Mongolia falls within the Eurasian steppe belt, which stretches from the mouth of the Danube River in Budapest in the east to northern China in the west. This is the largest temperate grassland in the world —it reaches almost 1/5 of the way around the globe! The steppe ecosystem is semi-arid, only receiving about 10-20 inches of rain in any given year. Because of the low amount of rainfall and drastic swings in temperature between seasons, grasses are the main type of plant that grow in the steppe. Mongolian nomads have grazed their livestock, including their cashmere goats, on these grasses for generations. Unfortunately, as herds of livestock have grown increasingly larger in number, overgrazing has become a problem that threatens both the nomadic people and native plants and animals.

The steppe has seen better days. Tall grass once covered this area but it has undergone partial desertification. Overgrazing from livestock is threatening this ecosystem and the animals that live in it. If you look closely, you can see remote Ger Camp in the bottom left of the photo.

Livestock are sometimes penned for safety overnight. Gray wolves roam the steppe and sometimes take livestock for prey. Pens and guard dogs help protect them.

A herd of goats grazing on the steppe.

The steppe is also home to a variety of native animals –some of the ones we came across in Altanbulag included corsac foxes, Brandt’s voles, steppe eagles, and demoiselle cranes. We even managed to catch a glimpse of a rare Pallas’s cat while out in the field one day!

Thanks to an abundance of rodents, eagles and other birds of prey thrive on the steppe.

We were very lucky to get a quick peak at a Pallas’s cat. These cats, known as ‘manul’ in Mongolian, are a threatened species due mainly to habitat degradation and fragmentation.

After several days of classes and fieldwork at Altanbulag, we departed southward to Hustaai National Park in search of Przewalski’s horses. These horses have never been domesticated and are considered the last remaining wild horses in the world. Known to Mongolians as ‘tahki’, meaning spirit, Przewalski’s horses are a symbol of national pride for the country.

Mongolians are horsemen who have used their own breed of domesticated horses for herding, travel, war, and sport since before the time of the Mongol Empire and Genghis Khan. Because of this, the Mongolian people hold horses, both domestic and wild, in high regard. I had a chance to explore part of Hustai National Park on horseback.

The sun setting over Moilt camp, our accommodations at Hustai National Park.

Przewalski’s horses were once common throughout much of the steppe. By the early part of the 20th century, livestock had overgrazed much of the grasslands that the horses relied on and that, coupled with some extra harsh winters, caused their populations to decline rapidly. By 1960, Mongolia’s Gobi region was the last place you could find Przewalski’s horses in the steppe. Just 9 years later, they were declared extinct in the wild.

Luckily, for both the tahki and us their story does not end there! There was still a population of tahki living in zoos —almost a thousand of them between Europe and the United States. In 1992, zoos and scientists teamed up. Zoos sent Przewalski’s horses born and raised in managed care to Mongolia, and began the first release efforts to restore Przewalski’s horses to their ancestral home on the steppe. Release efforts continued throughout the 1990s and 2000s and thanks to their success, there are around 380 horses living in Hustai National Park today.

While modern zoos are often considered centers of informal learning and entertainment, they are also huge contributors to global conservation efforts through both funding and research. In the case of Przewalski’s horses, zoos were crucial to their survival, serving as an ark to preserve individual animals and their genetic material from complete loss. Without an already established breeding program and population of Przewalski’s horses living in zoos when their population rapidly declined, they would almost certainly be extinct today.

Our second morning in Hustai National Park we woke up early, before the sun was even up. We got in our vans and drove to a valley in the middle of the park. We set up on a ridge, binoculars in hand. Not long after we arrived, someone spotted movement in the valley and everyone’s hearts started beating a little faster. Could it be what we came here for? What I spent the whole trip anticipating? Excitedly we watched three Przewalski’s horses —a small harem—appear out of the birch trees and then make their way across the valley.

A small harem of Przewalski’s horses in Husati National Park.

It was a quick glimpse and from a distance away but we were buzzing with excitement for the rest of the day. Many of the graduate students in my field class are zoo professionals and the Przewalski’s horse reintroduction story was one of the things that inspired our passion for both zoos and conservation. We could not wait to get back into the field the next day.

For the next several mornings, we returned to the valley and each time we spotted horses. On the last morning, we found ourselves surrounded on all sides by several harems of horses, over 60 animals in total, there were even foals —it felt like a dream. We observed and studied their behavior and watched as some of the harems interacted.

Spending time with those horses in the valley in Mongolia reminded me of all the important work that places like Brookfield Zoo do for conservation of wildlife around the globe. They educate, fund conservation efforts, perform critical research, and in the case of the Przewalski’s horse, serve as an ark —without places like Brookfield Zoo, Mongolia would have lost its spirit forever.

"The example of Przewalski’s horse conservation shows us that extinction events may be difficult to predict and how important it is to have a captive population to draw upon should reintroductions become necessary.” From Przewalski’s Horse: The History and Biology of an Endangered Species, Boyd and Houpt, 1994

-Racquel Ardisana, senior animal care specialist, Chicago Zoological Society’s Brookfield Zoo and graduate student at Miami University.

All Photos: Copyright Racquel Ardisana

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Posted: 8/18/2020 11:05:29 AM by Sean Keeley

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