The Wildest Horse

Wildlife Conservation, August 2006
© 2006 by Greg Breining

OUR DRIVER has abandoned us, making off with the government's new four-wheel-drive Mitsubishi, leaving behind a battered Beijing Zhangqi jeep, hood open and a gaping space where the battery belongs. "Don't worry," I'm told, as a researcher emerges from the tiny field station with a battery. But I do. As the Zhangqi sputters to life and five of us cram inside, I begin to worry whether three days on the endless plains of the Gobi Desert will be enough to find a rare Przewalski's horse—pronounced przhehVAHL-skee and named for a nineteenth-century Russian explorer, Colonel Nikolai Przewalski, who reported its existence to Europeans. I have traveled here to the eastern reaches of the old Silk Road at the geographic center of Asia to see the fruits of a Chinese project to reintroduce this close cousin of the domestic horse to its native grasslands. It disappeared from these plains a half-century ago

Unlike the much-publicized reintroductions of Przewalski's horses led by a Dutch preservation group in neighboring Mongolia, Chinese wildlife officials undertook their own breeding program in 1985. For 20 years, they labored in relative obscurity and isolation to build a herd of more than 120 Przewalski horses, which they then released with little fanfare into the 4.2-million-acre Kalamaili Nature Reserve, in Xinjiang Province. In 2004, the Cologne Zoo began helping out with technical advice, and recently, the zoo provided stallions to strengthen the breeding stock. 

As the Zhangqi lurches over the stony desert, our success seems less assured. Normally, we might find a horse at one of the rare permanent water holes. But it rained not long ago, so there are many puddles. Wild horses could be anywhere. 

"We don't know if we can find them," says our young translator, bouncing on my lap in the back seat. 

Then, as we crest a rise, biologist Chen Jinliang shouts, "Ye ma, ye ma!" Wild horse, wild horse! 

Spotting the jeep, eight stallions gallop away. "P-horse welcomes you," says a satisfied Chen, who is not alone among researchers who cannot pronounce this horse's Russian name

We watch the stocky, pony-like horses—rescued once from near extinction—course across the Gobi, as they did in the days of Genghis Khan. Called takhi, or spirit horse, in Mongolia, Przewalski's horses once roamed the steppes and near-deserts of western China, Mongolia, and central Asia. Some 6,000 years ago, closely related subspecies, now extinct, lived on the steppes and woodlands of Europe and gave rise to the domestic horse. The wild horse is known to scientists as Equus ferus przewalskii, but occasionally as E. caballus przewalskii, or E. przewalskii, because its kinship to the domestic horse, E. caballus, is still in dispute. 

Asia's wild horses are not the same as the "wild" mustangs of the American West, which escaped from conquistadors and ranchers after millennia of domestication. Przewalski's horses are dun-colored steeds with mohawk manes. They, or close relatives, appear in 17,000-year-old cave paintings at Lascaux and hundreds of prehistoric engravings and paintings in Italy, western France, and northern Spain. German nobleman Johann Schiltberger, imprisoned by Turks and sold to Tamerlane, sighted wild horses in central Asia during the early 1400s. Still, Przewalski's horse remained largely unknown in the West until John Bell, a Scottish doctor who traveled in the service of Peter the Great, reported seeing an account of wild horses published in 1763.

In modern times, wild horses were hunted for meat and pushed from pastures and watering holes by herdsmen and their domestic stock. By the early 1900s, P-horses had become rare indeed. The final few may have been doomed by warfare, harsh winters, and capture expeditions launched by European zoos, which killed and dispersed adults so they could take the foals. The last-known wild survivor was a stallion spotted by a Mongolian scientist near the Altai Mountains in 1969. The location, known as the Yellow Mountains of the Wild Horse and now the site of a Mongolian reintroduction program, lies 200 miles east of the horses we watch running across China's Kalamaili Reserve. 

Although Przewalski's horse disappeared from the wild, it survived—just barely—in the zoos of Europe and America. Only 31 captive horses outlived World War II. Of these, three stallions and six mares successfully bred. In 1947, one wild horse was captured in Mongolia and bred. From these descended the nearly 2,000 wild horses alive today. 

In 1985, China procured 11 zoo-bred horses from England and East Germany for a new Wild Horse Breeding Center in Xinjiang. Five additional horses arrived from West Germany in 1988, the same year the first foal was born in the Chinese program. The Chinese herd continued to grow. In the summer of 2001, wildlife managers trucked 27 of the animals north to Kalamaili Reserve. There they grazed for a month on alfalfa and natural plants in a spacious paddock before being released into the wild. 

The Kalamaili sits in the Junggar Basin, a depression that straddles China and Mongolia, with the Altai Mountains to the north, the Tian Shan to the south. It is an unforgiving land, with annual rainfall averaging 6 inches, and temperatures ranging from 120 degrees Fahrenheit during summer to minus 40 degrees during winter. Wild horses share this range with Asiatic wild asses, goitered gazelles, wolves, foxes, and several species of gerbils and jerboas (small rodents). The horizon makes Montana seem cramped. The plains are covered with glistening stones, burnished by sand and wind—a landform the Chinese call gebitan, after the Mongolian Gobi. 

Even though the last surviving wild horses were spotted in the Junggar Basin, it wasn't clear whether this area was their preferred habitat, or simply their last redoubt from the onslaught of humans and their domestic animals. Quite possibly, horses would favor lusher grasslands. 

"The last places we see animals are not necessarily the best places for them to live," explains Peter Leimgruber, a Smithsonian National Zoo conservation biologist who has visited the Kalamaili. "There is a lot of controversy over what is the optimal habitat for these guys." Ultimately, Chinese wildlife managers didn't have much choice. More fertile grasslands had long ago been claimed by humans and converted to pasture or other uses. 

That first winter of 2001-02, the Gobi revealed what a cruel place it can be. Snow, rain, and bitter cold created conditions the Mongolians call dzud—an armor plate of ice that prevents animals from easily finding or reaching food. To make matters worse, 30 families of Kazakh herders had brought as many as 200,000 head of sheep, goats, and horses onto the reserve from the foothills of the Altai Mountains, as they do every winter. In the competition for scarce food, three of the newly freed horses starved. Even native wild asses and goitered gazelles, adapted to the climate and location, perished by the thousands. So did domestic stock. The next winter, wildlife managers brought the surviving wild horses back into their large enclosure and supplemented their natural forage with alfalfa. 

The death of horses spurred wildlife managers to seek advice, recalls Olaf Behlert, deputy director of the Cologne Zoo. "[The Chinese] were so desperate to have contact with the outside world." And so, officials from Cologne Zoo and, later, the Smithsonian National Zoo met in Xinjiang to study the program, offer advice, and work out a plan for future cooperation. Mostly, the Westerners were impressed with what the Chinese had achieved. 

"It was surprising to me how well the Chinese had managed the captive herd all the years, as they kept the inbreeding fairly low," says Waltraut Zimmermann, a Cologne Zoo curator who manages the European studbook for Przewalski's horses. Nonetheless, to bolster the breeding stock, German zoos and wildlife parks in late 2005 sent six stallions to the Chinese Wild Horse Breeding Center (one died shortly after arrival). Cologne also sent microchips for identifying the horses, tranquilizing drugs and darts, and other useful items. 

But the biggest problems remained the fierce storms and domestic animals. "The nomads pass by regularly and lure the wild horses out of their home range," Zimmermann says. "Reintroduction in a habitat where domestic horses still live or pass by will never be successful. There is no way that this can be tolerated." The proximity of domestic horses increases chances of interbreeding, disease, and competition for grazing. 

So last summer, two new release sites were selected in hillier terrain to the south, with perhaps less snow and greater shelter. The Western consultants are encouraging the Chinese to survey migrating herders to better understand how to avoid conflicts. Wildlife managers have pledged to pay nomadic herdsmen to avoid both old and new release sites. The goal is to build a free-ranging herd of 500, large enough to persist through bad weather, disease, and similar disaster, says Hu Defu, head of zoology at Beijing Forestry University, and a longtime authority on the horses and other large mammals of the Junggar Basin. Currently, 32 horses, including several wild-born foals, roam free. "Long way to go!" Hu quips. 

In the desert, it's easy to see the problems my Chinese companions face. Equipment is shabby. The best four-wheel-drives purr over city streets in the capital, while out here, field workers switch batteries in broken-down jeeps. Equipment is primitive. Unable to afford radio collars, researchers hunt down horses by jeep or 125-cc motorbikes, or even ask nearby road crews whether horses have passed by. 

Crossing the gebitan on foot, I come across the hoofprints and dung of sheep and goats. I find the tumbledown livestock pens and the stock pond dams herdsmen fashioned of stone and mud the previous winter. Neatly piled cairns on the hills mark the boundaries of the nomads' winter ranges. The wind and sun bleach the bones of sheep, goats, and a few wild asses. 

Hiking across a flat plain, I spot a chalky scat packed with hair. Wolf, Chen says. Gray wolves roam the reserve and occasionally kill asses and gazelles, as well as the herders' livestock. So far, Chen says, he has found no evidence that they have killed any horses, not even foals, which find protection in the tightly knit family group headed by a dominant stallion. 

The only other predator large enough to threaten a horse, of course, is man. Chen says he has seen no evidence of poaching or other direct human threats. In fact, after one horse became separated from its group during a blizzard, reserve managers received a call from a distant herdsman who had sheltered the stray in his own pasture. 

Despite the problems and limitations and threats, the horses are surviving—even prospering. One afternoon, we see a family group of five—several mares and a stallion, his hide scarred from fighting. Munching the sparse grass, they allow me within a few yards. One mare suddenly gets edgy, holds out her tail, and walks briskly past. The stallion perks his ears and starts toward me. When challenged, a dominant stallion will bare his teeth and lower his head in a "snaking posture" to round up mares and ward off rivals. I have no designs on anyone, so I back off. 

Soon the horses resume grazing. They seem to glow in the low light of the dying day. Wildlife managers have great ambitions for these horses of the Kalamaili. They discuss the possibility of creating a transborder park, so ye ma by the hundreds can graze clear into Mongolia. It is a bold dream. I wonder if these horses, just a step removed from domesticity, are up to it. Can they survive wolves, blizzards, and a rapidly developing China, where every hectare is up for grabs? If so, then Przewalski's horse—a symbol of freedom and wide-open spaces like no other—stands also to become a symbol of commitment and faith.