For thousands of years, Przewalski horses withstood a multitude of natural and anthropogenic hazards on the East Asian grasslands, but eventually died out under the combined pressure of environmental stressors of the 19th-20th centuries. Today, reintroduced Takhis are learning to cope with old and new hazards on their reintroduction sites. While some environmental stressors disappeared (military activities, hunting), others exacerbated (overgrazing, land degradation, desertification) and new ones emerged (e.g. road erosion, mining). Reintroduced individuals bear on their shoulders the long term survival of the species, but their relatively low numbers still make them particularly vulnerable to such threats.
Livestock overload and overgrazing
Takhis died out under communism in the Mongolian People’s Republic in 1969 and were brought back to their native land at a time of transition to a free-market economy in the early 1990’s. Until the 20th century, the Mongolian steppe, which covers 80% of the country’s land area, had always been exploited by herdsmen through transhumant pastoralism, the most adequate way of using the land under the ruthless regional climate. Collectivization never suppressed this effective traditional system, but herders’ mobility on the steppes became tightly controlled from 1950. As ancient pastoral customs were replaced by statutory regulations and state support increased in the form of subsidies and supplies to compensate the loss of mobility (winter forage, consumer good, transport, risk management and marketing services, etc.), nomads progressively lost their secular autonomy and independence. Fortuitously, land degradation was fairly contained during that time, save the 10,000 sq km of the best pastures where mechanized, large-scale farming was established: “Emphasis was on output rather than pasture improvement, but the system did assure better pasture management than today’s anarchy”.
After the collapse of the USSR and 70 years under the red banner, Mongolia switched to a free-market economy and redefined its identity as a sovereign nation state with the adoption of a new constitution in 1992. For 40 years, the Soviet Union had been Mongolia’s primary trade partner and supporter. With trade flows and financial assistance down and the reluctance of the Mongolian communist party (MPRP), in power until 1993, to undertake the necessary reforms, the country quickly plunged into recession and urban unemployment skyrocketed.
However, some reforms were passed early on. In particular, the new regime privatized livestock ownership and at the same time lifted any form of control over the use of grasslands. Suddenly, animal husbandry seemed like a lucrative sector. As a result, between 1990-1992 alone, 150,000 Mongols returned to the steppe to become herdsmen, and by 2010, they were 800,000, i.e. roughly one third of the total population of 2,75 million (2010 national census). Between 1990 and 2010, livestock animals quadrupled to a historic record of 40 millions (records are kept since 1918), representing a 20-35% increase in some areas and including a significant proportion of cashmere goats. With fortune counted in livestock heads, herdsmen were indeed not only inclined to grow their herd size but to alter its composition to better match international market demand, particularly the cashmere market. Traditionally, sheep prevailed over goats, but the appealing cashmere market led many farmers to swap sheep for goats to the point that Mongolia currently supports 20% of this market. Although hardier animals, goats are more destructive to the land because they uproot the vegetation and “[their sharp hooves] damage fragile pasture by breaking up the protective tangle of grass and lichens”.
When the Przewalski horses were first reintroduced in 1992, Mongolian grasslands were in better condition than the rest of the Eurasian Steppe, because low-density land use through organized transhumance had been the rule during most of the Holocene. However, the immense steppe could not sustain the blow of the 1990-2000’s. The uncontrolled grazing of so many animals so severely deteriorated pastures that 30% of the country’s overall grassland biomass production has been lost since the fall of communism and 70% of the Mongolian steppe is considered to be degraded to some degree.
Often unaware that herd expansion is harmful to the ecosystem they tightly depend on, herders are trapped in a vicious circle. When they want out of it, profitable alternatives are scant due to their limited skills and high urban unemployment. At the same time, the authorities continue to heavily rely on animal husbandry, a pillar of the economy that accounts for 19% of the national GDP and employs 35% of the Mongols. For state officials, the herd size increase is altogether positive for the agriculture and long term wise unsustainable. Since 1995, various environmental laws rationalizing the use of pastureland were adopted, but few effectively enforced due to insufficient financial and human resources. In 2000, the government planned to “transform the nomadic form into a farm-based industry and the extensive husbandry form into an intensive one”, but this project has yet to be completed. Besides, intensive farming is not more desirable for the environment.
The overgrazing problem exists everywhere in Mongolia at different levels in different areas, including the protected areas where Przewalski horses were reintroduced. 68% of the Great Gobi B reserve is used as agricultural land, mainly pastureland, and the existing zonation needs to be revised as it cannot currently contain natural and human induced degradation processes observed in the area. In Khar-Us Nuur National Park overgrazing has given rise to poisonous plants on pastures. Even parts of Hustai National Park, one of the key protected areas in Mongolia, are overloaded with livestock. This situation may seem paradoxical with respect to the Przewalski horse: the equid was reintroduced in part to help restore grassland ecosystems, but the level of degradation attained in recent years could be detrimental to its survival.
On the bright side, Takhi reintroduction, together with the creation of various UNESCO biosphere reserves (e.g. Hustai Nuuru, Great Gobi A and B) and RAMSAR wetland areas (e.g. Khar-Us Nuur), has given an impulse and is fostering environmental and economic change. In 2010, nearly one third of the country’s land area (44,500,000 ha) was under the scope of nascent conservation programs, which aim to raise environmental awareness among pastoral communities and involve them in the sustainable management of the natural resources their livelihoods depend on. That way, they are empowered to maintain their ancestral pastoral lifestyle, which continues to part of the country’s national identify. In Hustai National Park, tourism activities have created an alternative source of income for the herders and should help contain overgrazing problems.
As part of Takhi conservation, restrictions were imposed on herders such as the exclusion of Mongolian horses, a traditional herd component, at or near reintroduction sites. Conservationists point to the risk of hybridization which could “corrupt” the unique, carefully managed gene pool of the species. This measure may seem unfair because domestic horses have been part of the nomads’ culture since their introduction in East-Asia many centuries back (see above image for an example of the special bond that exists between Mongols and their horses). Furthermore, Przewalski horses have always coexisted with them and no substantial interbreeding ever occurred. Another reason advanced by conservationists to justify this measure is the transmission of deadly infectious diseases by domestic horses such as equine piroplasmosis, a tick-transmitted disease endemic to Mongolia and northern China, or contamination by streptococcus equi, a highly contagious infection of lymph nodes and upper respiratory tract.
Climate change, dzud and wolves
Climate represented a major factor of influence for wild horse populations during the end of the Late Pleistocene, but a minor one during most of the Holocene period. However, this seems to be changing. Events documented over the past decades evidence ongoing climatic mutations in Mongolia.
One example is the expansion of the immense Gobi Desert at a rate of roughly 150 km per twenty years. This desertification process is progressively reducing grassland vegetation and drying out water sources. Another sign of change is the multiplication of extreme weather events such as dzuds, which used to be of exceptional occurrence. The word describes a variety of severe winter weather conditions that can be particularly lethal, especially when combined with summer droughts. In tsagaan (white) dzud, the most common form, abundant snow falls pile up to form thick snow covers which block food access, starving animals to death. Typical of the Gobi Desert, khar (black) dzuds are characterized by a lack of snowfall that kills by thirst in the absence of alternative water sources in the area. In khuiten (cold) dzud, very low temperatures coupled with violent, freezing winds over consecutive days force animals to spend their energy preserving body temperature instead of foraging. Finally, tumer (iron) dzud occur when the snow cover melts and immediately refreezes to form an impenetrable cover. Dzuds can occur anytime during the long Mongolian winters, which span from May to October, and last from one to several months. According to the 2009 Mongolia National Assessment Report on Climate Change established with the technical and financial support of the United Nations, “it is anticipated that winter is becoming milder and snowy, while summer is becoming hotter and drier even though there is small increase of precipitation based on overall climate change assessment (…) and there is high probability of climate anomalous phenomena” such as winter dzuds.
Studies of Takhi morphology, behavior and diet indicate that the horses are adapted to the naturally harsh Mongolian climate, a semi-arid continental climate characterized by broad annual thermal amplitude, extreme daily temperature variations and barren vegetation. Depending on the season, latitude and amount of precipitations, the steppe resembles semi-deserts or grassland shrubby prairies with hardly any trees due to the constant wind blow.
However, a century of captivity reduced the species’ genetic diversity and weakened its resilience in the wild. Furthermore, as past events have shown and recent ones confirmed, the horses appear to be sensitive to climatic variations and extreme weather patterns like dzuds. The winters of 2000-2001 and especially 2009-2010 were marked by terrible episodes of tsagaan dzuds and, to make things worse, the second followed a summer of droughts. The animal death toll reached dramatic numbers: 8.5 million livestock heads perished and some nomads lost their entire herds, making the 2009-2010 winter the worst ever experienced by the current generation of herdsmen.
In general, wildlife sustained the calamity better than livestock, but Przrewalski horses were nearly decimated in the Great Gobi B. The northeastern section of the protected area where are situated the reintroduction site, camp and research station (Takhin Tal) was most severely affected. Temperatures between -10/-40°C from mid-November to mid-March and frequent snow storms from late December to early March created a persistent, compact snow cover up to 1 m high. Out of 137 initially present on site, only 48 Takhis lived through the white death episode because most horses stayed near Takhin Tal, where rangers fed them during the storm. In contrast, the horses that moved in time to milder areas, like Goitered Gazelles and Mongolian Wild Asses (khulan) instinctively did, were spared.
Bands from the Great Gobi B have been slowly recovering since then and a few horses from the Prague Zoo were transported to Takhin Tal in July 2014 (photos of the event are available here). However, frequent dzuds could be detrimental to the long term survival of the species in the Great Gobi B as long as the population has not reached sustainable levels.
Another natural cause of Takhi mortality on the steppe is wolf predation on foals and weak adults (other steppe predators include red and corsac foxes, lynx and manul, also known as Pallas’s cat). In Hustai National Park, wolf predation is responsible for 46% of foal mortality. Newborns of June and July are particularly at risk: by then, wolf cubs born in the spring have grown up and are building their hunting skills on small and easy preys like horse foals. The threat also exists in the Great Gobi B, but wolf population density remains low on this immense reserve. Data collected from GPS tagged wolves have shown that they can roam over impressively large areas up to 143,000 km2 within a two-year period.
Horse bands had to relearn how to defend themselves against wolf attacks. Instinctively mares group in a circle around the foals to protect them, while the stallion attempts a counterattack, trotting around and charging the predators, helped by mares without foals. Small harems are the most vulnerable: a foal defended by only two mares has little hope of surviving an attack. Unherded horses also make easy preys.
Mining, Road Erosion and Pollution
More than 49,000 km of road, mostly soil or improved graveled, criss-cross the Mongolian territory. To date, movements on this vast road network and beyond has caused the erosion of approximately 1,5 million ha of the country’s total land area, a gigantic surface “nearly equal [to] the total amount of agricultural land in Mongolia”. This epidemic problem could affect Takhi populations in the future if damage is not effectively contained near reintroduction sites.
There is a direct link between road traffic and erosion: the higher the number of vehicles in circulation, the more severe the degradation. Between 1990 and 2011, this number has increased more than sixfold as a result of an exceptional boom of the mining sector. Minerals, especially gold, coal and iron, presently account for more than 80% of Mongolian exports (mainly to China). The flourishing industry brought large numbers of vehicles and heavy machinery to the steppe, which has been aggravating road erosion and causing additional damage in the form of dusting, pasture degradation, water shortage and pollution through inadequate disposal of toxic waste. Most harm to the land linked to mining occurred between 1995 and 2008. The Mongolian government then tightened regulations and control, but the industry still claims 24.6% of the country’s territory (38.5 million ha) based on some 4,700 licenses.
Illegal mining, too, is in full swing. Also called “ninja mining”, this dangerous activity is practiced by some 100,000 Mongols across the country (although much higher numbers are advanced by some), mostly former herders who reluctantly partake in the gold rush by lack of better alternatives. As part of the extraction process, ninja miners handle cyanide and mercury, often improperly, harming themselves and the environment. Here are some photos of Mongolian ninja miners.
Uncontrolled illegal mining has been occurring in parts of the Great Gobi B where Takhis were reintroduced. Some industrial projects are in place in the surroundings of the protected area, the closest being the Tayan Nuur mine, an iron mine exploited by the company Altain Khuder since 2006. More mining concessions were granted further east, which could lead to the development of additional roads and railway infrastructure, and eventually result in the separation of the two clusters of the Great Gobi Strictly Protected Area.
The long term success of the various reintroduction programs will essentially depend on the availability of human and financial resources the state has been unable to sufficiently provide in the past. The Mongolian government is however increasingly working in collaboration with environmental NGOs and private groups, some of which are entrusted with the management of specific wilderness areas. Over the past twenty years, eco-tourism has become a substantial source of income for the country following the development of green initiatives and activities in various parts of the steppe. This is a positive note for Takhi reintroduction and Hustai National Park is already benefiting from this evolution. Improved roads and infrastructure could bring eco-tourism to the more remote Great Gobi B and Kamaili Reserve in the future and a few years of clement weather would help Takhi populations rapidly attain sustainability in these hostile, remote regions.
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