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.
Mongolia has been the land of the horse for longer than anyone can remember.
Distinguished from domestic horses in part by their thicker necks, shorter legs, and zebra-like erect mane, takhi were last seen in the wild during the 1960s in the Gobi, which accounts for roughly the southern third of Mongolia.
To some people, the takh 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 which humans have bred over thousands of years to have a specific color, size, or temperament.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Link: Rare Przewalski’s Horse (earlier post)
Link: Takhi Wild Horse