A first-time exploration of the Mercantour from the town of Roubion (French Alps)

Mercantour - Roubion and surroundings

The Mercantour (core and peripheral area). The area discussed in the present article is contained in the black square.

Created in 1979, the Parc National du Mercantour boasts a unique mixture of nature and culture on its 685 sq km alpine territory made up of six distinctive valleys dominated by mountain tops over 3,000 m. Though omniscient and diverse, the local wilderness has long coexisted with men whose early presence in the area is attested by the scattered remnants of former human activities (rock engravings, chapels, defensive fortifications ruins, military blockhaus, old sheep/cow pens…) and a multitude of hamlets remarkably erected on the steepest slopes of the park’s buffer zone (1,465 sq km). Built in a stair-like fashion amid the lush vegetation, the traditional rock houses give the impression of having literally grown out of the mountain stone. Visitors shall feel amazed at the sighting of such surreal constructions and a little frightened when accessing some of these unconventional dwellings via curvy one-lane roads.

Roubion

View from the end of the road leading to Roubion. Credit: Yalakom

An archetype of such picturesque villages is Roubion. Perched at an altitude of 1,336 m in the Vallée de la Tinée, this charming medieval town of 125 inhabitants makes for an ideal base for those wishing to explore the multiple facets of the Mercantour. Roubion will introduce visitors to the local lifestyle, past and present, while providing easy access to the park’s core area via the hiking trails that run through its narrow, cobbled streets. Refreshing source water feeds Continue reading

The Przewalski horse: overview of reintroduction initiatives (Part 11)

The idea of reintroducing Przewalski horses in the wild in East Asia, their last known historic range, materialized in the late 1970’s and the first release of horses took place in the early 1990’s. As of today, reintroduction was achieved in two out of three and one out of three Mongolian and Chinese proposed sites, respectively.

Hustai National Park Logo

Hustai National Park‘s symbolic logo representing Takhis

Inge and Jan Bouman, together with Mongolian scientist Tserendeleg Jachin, were the pioneers of Takhi reintroduction. They created the Foundation for the Preservation and Protection of the Przewalski Horse[1] in Rotterdam in 1977 and launched the Khustain Nuruu Project. It took over a decade to enhance the genetics of Takhis, which had become largely inbred in captivity. In 1991, the Mongolian government established Hustai National Park for the purpose of Takhi reintroduction; it was then approved UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2002. Situated 100 km south-west of Ulaanbataar, the 50,000 ha area (excluding buffer zones and transition areas) was chosen for the quality and abundance of its wildlife. The horses enrolled in the project were bred in Holland and kept in semi-wild reserves where they could freely interact and form social bonds before being flown to Mongolia. Between 1992 and 2000, 84 Takhis aged 3-5 landed at Hustai and the first individuals were released into the wild in the summer of 1994.

Przewalski Horses in the wild at Hustai National Park

Przewalski Horses in the wild at Hustai National Park / Credit: Kelsey Rideout

Nowadays, some 300 horses divided in 30 harems inhabit the park[2]. The objective is to reach a population of 350, which would ensure the sustainability of the species and remains Continue reading

The Przewalski horse: being wild in the wild (Part 10)

Reintroducing Takhis in East Asia is a long term process with a threefold objective: establish viable populations in parts of the horse’s historic range, restore degraded steppe ecosystems and foster socio-economic development, which in turn would guarantee the long term success of reintroduction.

When the first reintroduction program was launched in the late 1970’s, the Przewalski horses had been living in captivity for almost a century. To return to their native steppe, they first had to learn to be wild again. In addition to reducing genetic diversity, captivity had made the horses entirely dependent on men for their survival and inhibited their most basic instincts. In this context, reintroduction would be a marathon and a complex learning process for the horses.
Continue reading

The Przewalski horse: walking on thin ice (Part 9)

“Twenty years ago a subspecies of wild horses, the Asian Przewalski horse, became extinct in the wild. There were still specimens in zoos but ten generations of inbreeding had weakened them and instead of infinite grasslands they knew only iron fences. The animals were merely a shadow of their former selves.”[1] It is with these words that Prince Bernhard of The Netherlands described the poor and seemingly hopeless condition of the species in the aftermath of its extirpation in the wild. Following this event, Przewalski horses experienced a dramatic population bottleneck. As the species survived through just a few captive individuals, the loss of founder genes became a terrible threat to their viability. Should they be saved, prompt action was required: breeding a healthy population through inter-zoo exchanges was a matter of urgency. From 1979, various conservation programs Continue reading

The Przewalski horse: the lethal transformations of the East-Asian steppe (part 7)

Concurrently to being hunted and otherwise severed from the wild, Przewalski horses were indirectly impacted by the progressive transformations of East Asian drylands throughout the Holocene period under the combined influence of various natural and anthropogenic factors[1], some of which are briefly discussed below.

East-Asian drylands

Map of East Asian drylands established based on data from the map “Land cover map of Dryland East Asia (DEA)” available here / Blank source map available here

Agricultural development and regional population growth

Domestication of most animals and plants took place between 10,000 to 5,000 years ago[2]. Animal husbandry and cultivation were broadly adopted in Eurasia[3] although greatly varied in time, space and intensity. On East Asian drylands (see above map), particularly grasslands where the horses lived, animal husbandry dominated agriculture over the past 5,000 years; the harsh climate and low soil fertility of such regions[4] generally made cultivation difficult.

As population grew, so did agriculture, but contrasting trends in population growth resulted in different levels of agricultural intensification on the vast drylands. Continue reading

The Przewalski horse: an object of European curiosity from the 19th century (Part 5)

General Nikolai M. Przevalski

Russian Colonel Nikolai M. Przewalski. His name is sometimes ortographed “Przhevalsky” or “Prjewalski” / Source: The Long Riders’ Guild

In 1879, Colonel Nikolai M. Przewalski (1839-1888), a notorious Russian explorer and naturalist sent to Tibet by Tsar Alexander II of Russia, was presented with a Takhi hide and skull upon returning from his journey. Both animal parts were sent for examination to the Zoological Museum of the Academy of Science in St Petersburg where zoologist I. S. Poliakoff identified the Asian Wild Horse as a new species within the Equus genus and gave it its scientific name Equus ferus przewalskii in 1881[1]. Another notable report came from Grigory and Michael Grum-Grzhimailo, two Russian brothers who came upon Takhi bands in the Dzungarian Basin (Xinjiang) on their voyage across western China in 1889-1890. They shot a mare and three stallions whose hides and skulls together with an incomplete skeleton were again sent to St Petersburg. The hunters observed the equids closely and Continue reading

The Przewalski horse: a meat and trophy horse until the 20th century (Part 4)

The drastic climatic transformations brought by the end of the Ice Age did not durably affect wild horses. Their large 9 million km2 mid-Holocene (6,000 years ago) range suggests they had recovered by then and enjoyed thriving, though unevenly distributed populations[1]. According to archeological data from the first half of the Holocene (Mesolithic and early Neolithic periods), horse bones accounted for fewer than 10% of all kitchen garbage animal bones in Western and Central Europe against 40% on the Eurasian Steppe[2], showing that the equids were much more numerous eastwards, where they represented a primary source of meat for men as a result.

Horse husbandry took off during these times of plenitude. In the present state of research, horse domestication is generally ascribed to the Botai people who inhabited the grasslands of Northern Kazakhstan, near Astana, approximately 3,500 BC[3]. At least 77 distinct, non-Przewalski maternal lineages which already existed 10,000 years ago are represented Continue reading