The Przewalski horse: reintroduction hazards (Part 12)

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 activitieshunting), 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

Flag of the Mongolian People's Republic

Flag of the Mongolian People’s Republic

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[1], 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[2]. 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 Continue reading

The Przewalski horse: the end of a wild journey (Part 8)

During most of the Holocene, men and Przewalski horses sustained a predator-prey relationship, and men gradually intruded, fragmented and degraded the grasslands where these animals lived. Takhis were eventually dislodged from the Mongolian and Chinese steppes though the details of this lengthy, complex and unmonitored process remain largely unknown. What is clear is that anthropogenic and climatic pressure became unbearable to the horses during the first half of the 20th century[1], depleteting the species below recovery level.

Map of last sightings

Map of the last sightings prior to 1969 / Source: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan Equids: Zebras, Asses and Horses by the IUCN

Their last known territory prior to extinction, i.e. south-eastern Mongolia, only represented a small fraction of their much broader historic range. Yet, even there, the horses were not at rest from human presence and activities and had to retreat to areas of the Gobi Desert, which provide poorer and scarcer vegetation and water holes year round. The horses were ill-adapted to this harsher environment[2] and their situation was further aggravated by the occurrence of unusually rough climatic events around this time and by poaching, in violation of the horse hunting ban of 1926. The species’ resilience quickly eroded as bands became smaller and sparser. Large groups were still commonly encountered in the early 1940’s, but by the end of the decade and during the next one fewer individuals were occasionally sighted in the region of Tachijn-Shar-Nuru (meaning the “yellow mountain of the wild horse”), south of the Mongolian Altai, on the border with Xinjiang[3] (see map). The end was near.

The Mongolian scientist N. Dovchin was the last witness to provide an official report of a wild living Takhi in 1969: he spotted a lone stallion near gun-Tamga, a natural spring situated in the same area as the previous sightings (see map). All attempts to locate Przewalski horses in this area and other parts of their known 20th century Mongolian and Chinese range were unsuccessful after this date, which became the official year of the species’ extinction in the wild.


Continue reading about the Przewalski horse: Part 1 I Part 2 I Part 3Part 4 I Part 5 I Part 6 I Part 7 I Part 9 I Part 10 I Part 11 I Part 12


REFERENCES – [1] Przewalski’s Horse: The History and Biology of an Endangered Species, by Lee Boyd, Katherine A. Houpt, 1994, pp 15-16. [2] Przewalski’s Horse: The History and Biology of an Endangered Species, by Lee Boyd, Katherine A. Houpt, 1994, pp 15-16. [3] Status and Action Plan for the Przewalski’s Horse, S. Wakefield et al., in Equids: Zebras, Asses, and Horses, Edited by Patricia Des Roses Moehlman, IUCN/SSC Equid Specialist Group IUCN, 2002, p. 83.