Printer Friendly

Back from the brink: the world's last truly wild horses had disappeared from Mongolia. Now scientists are returning the animals to their native land.

Thirty-five years ago, the people of Mongolia caught what they thought was their final glimpse of a wild takh, the world's last remaining species of untamed horse. To some people, the horse became just another species on the long list of animals that are extinct (no longer living) in the wild. But to a group of scientists who refused to see extinction in the wild as a point of no return, the disappearance became a challenge: Two decades ago, they turned to zoos for help in bringing captive-bred takhi (plural for takh) back to their native land. Today takhi--the Mongolian national symbol--have returned to the vast steppes (open grasslands) that cover much of the country.


Takhi are unlike any other horses. They've never been tamed or, many people believe, ever ridden. "Some [takhi] in zoos have become tame enough to be touched. But that's about it," explains Lee Boyd, a biologist at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, who has studied takhi behavior.

The horses most people are familiar with are domestic homes (Equus caballus), which humans have bred over thousands of years to have a specific color, size, or temperament. Even the homes roaming freely in the mountains of the Western U.S. or on the islands along the mid-Atlantic coast aren't truly wild. They're feral, or domestic homes that have escaped to live in the wild.

Takhi (Equus fetus przewalskii) are a completely different species. Standing at just three to four feet tall, they're much shorter than domestic horses. They have a thick neck and a bristly, dark-brown mane. Takhi are also well adapted (adjusted) to a harsh life on Mongolia's steppe, where food and water are hard to find and temperatures can range from -40[degrees]C (-40[degrees]F) to 40[degrees]C (104[degrees]F). Mongolia's wild horses are also genetically different from domestic horses. Takhi have 66 chromosomes (structures in cells that carry the genetic information for an organism), while domestic horses have 64. This makes takhi unique--and irreplaceable should the species disappear completely.


For more than 10,000 years, takhi roamed the steppe that once stretched from the Iberian Peninsula (southwest tip of Europe) to Manchuria on the east coast of China. Over centuries, the climate slowly warmed and their habitat (native environment) changed from open grassland to dense forest.

At the same time, humans began turning much of the remaining grassland into farms or grazing land for livestock. This restricted the takhi's movement and reduced their habitat even more. In the early 1900s, zoo collectors contributed to the species' decline by killing hundreds of adult takhi just so they could capture the much slower foals (young) for their exhibits. In 1969, the last takh was spotted in the wild.


A group of Dutch scientists in the late 1970s discovered there were only 300 takhi remaining in zoos and private collections around the world. That's when they began working to return takhi to the Mongolian steppe. Why bother? "A species that survives only in captivity is actually extinct," explains Petra Kaczensky, a biologist at the Salzburg Zoo in Austria who is working on one of the takhi reintroduction programs. "For captive breeding to be more than just a museum with live exhibits, it needs to aim at the reestablishment of the species in the wild."

Before the zoo-bred takhi could be released, they had to be trained to live in the wild again. Biologists carefully selected takhi and released them into six large parks in the Netherlands and Germany. There, the horses learned to find food on their own, defend themselves against wolves, and live in family groups called harems. In 1992, researchers flew the first group of takhi to Mongolia, where the horses spent another two years getting used to the new terrain, climate, and food. Finally, the horses were released into the Hustai Nuruu National Park 90 kilometers (56 miles) southwest of Mongolia's capital, Ulaanbaatar.


Today, after several more reintroductions, nearly 209 horses roam Hustai Nuruu and another park in the far western part of Mongolia known as Gobi-B. The worldwide zoo population has "also grown to nearly 2,000 animals, which biologists hope to keep healthy so they have a reserve in case disease or another disaster kills the reintroduced animals.

Despite the reintroduction successes, takhi still aren't in the clear. Scientists are concerned that farms and grazing land near the reintroduction sites could start the cycle of decline all over again. In addition, they are trying to prevent free-roaming domesticated horses from mating with the wild horses, as this would reduce the number of pure takhi left in the world.

"People think we just put animals in the field and walk away and that's a successful reintroduction," says Randy Rieches, curator of mammals at the San Diego Wild Animal Park. But that's not the case. "It takes a lot of field scientists out there monitoring the homes and their habitat," he explains.


The reintroduction program has done more than bring takhi back to Mongolia. It has also helped raise people's awareness of the vanishing steppe and the importance of preserving the world's biodiversity (the number of different plants and animals). In Mongolia, where takh means "spirit," takhi have provided a visible link between preservation of one species and the overall health of an ecosystem.

"The [takh] is an umbrella species," says Steve Monfort, a veterinary scientist with the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. "By reintroducing it to critical habitat, you help save the entire habitat. If you save that one animal, you have an umbrella to save all the other species in that area."

It's Your Choice

1 All of the following describe takhi, EXCEPT:

A. They have 66 chromosomes.

B. They belong to the genus Equus.

C. Takhi are feral horses.

D. They're much shorter than domestic horses.

2 According to the article, what challenges do takhi face in the wild that they didn't face in captivity?

A. Defending themselves from wolves

B. Finding enough food

C. Getting used to a harsh climate

D. All of the above

3 Which of the following contributed to the decline of wild takhi in Mongolia?

A. Disease wiped out the population.

B. Their habitat was turned into farms and grazing land.

C. They weren't adapted to living in the steppe area.

D. They moved to a different region.

Did You Know?

* Takhi harems mark their migratory routes with dung! When other takhi pass by the smelly pile, they sniff to "read" which other takhi harem visited that spot. And before moving on, the new group "drops" its own mark.

* Takhi harems are composed of six to 17 animals, including one chief stallion (male horse), mares (female horses), and foals (young horses). Because these horses are social creatures, members of a harem can recognize each other's faces--and they even have individual friendships!

Back From the Brink It's Your Choice, p. 15

1. c 2. d 3. b


PBS's "Race Across the Steppe" has a fun trivia game on Mongolia. Check out: www, game_flash.html

To learn more about takhi reintroduction efforts, check out the Web site of the Foundation for the Preservation and Protection of the Przewalski Horse:

Visit this American Museum of Natural History Web site to learn about the cultural importance of horses:
COPYRIGHT 2004 Scholastic, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2004, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Life: endangered species
Author:Kostel, Ken
Publication:Science World
Date:Apr 5, 2004
Previous Article:Tomorrow's weather: in the movie The Day After Tomorrow, twisters topple buildings, waves wash out cities, and snow blankets streets. Could rapid...
Next Article:Buy a better earth: Science World goes shopping for the environment.

Related Articles
No more alligator tears?
The Last of Their Kind.
Hanging BY A Thread.
Mustangs in danger? Too many horses, too little land. (Population Ecology).
Saving Mongolia's wild horses.
Camelid comeback: scientists search for ways to save wild cousins on two continents. .
Southern reindeer folk: as far from Santa as the old herders go.
Bundle of joy.
Last chance for American caribou.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters