Monday, October 10, 2005

ENV: Return of the P Horse



One of our local ranchers once had a small herd of these guys, on loan for breeding herd protection . . .

Foal by Foal, the Wildest of Horses Is Coming Back
By JOHN NOBLE WILFORD, The New York Times, October 11, 2005


HUSTAI NATIONAL PARK, Mongolia - Driving along a fold in the mountainous grassland here, a party led by a wildlife conservation specialist caught sight of the horses. A stallion and four mares grazed a higher slope: a rare sight but not as rare as it would have been a decade ago, when wild horses started making a comeback in the wild.

The visitors stopped the truck and climbed one hill after another, tracking the wild horses. The party had come for a close look at what international experts say is an encouraging experiment in wildlife management - the return of the natives, once abundant, that had become extinct in the wild more than 40 years ago.

Mongolia is a land of the horse. The warriors of Genghis Khan and his successors in the 13th century conquered most of Asia on the backs of sturdy horses.

Today, nomads still mind their flocks from the saddle, and they never look more at home than in a race across the empty distances of the Gobi Desert, a study in fluid motion and the centaurian harmony of man and horse as one.

But even the Mongols never managed to domesticate the wildest of horses, a species known as Equus ferus przewalskii, or P-horse for short. It is one of just two extant species of horse. All the breeds of the familiar domestic horse, from Shetland pony to Clydesdale, belong to the other species, which submitted to the bit and bridle 6,000 years ago. Przewalski's horse (pronounced zheh-VAHL-skee and named for the 19th-century Russian explorer who first identified it) is about the size of a large pony, with a stocky body in shades of tan to tawny, short brown legs and a dark mane that stands straight up.

They once roamed Central Asia, and particularly Mongolia, where they are called takhi. They banded in families, called harems, of mares, foals and bachelor males overseen by a dominant male.

In the 1960's, the takhi disappeared from the wild in Mongolia and everywhere, victims of overhunting for horse meat and habitat competition from people and their livestock. A few hundred survived in captivity, mainly in Europe.

From that number, wildlife biologists led by a Dutch preservation group organized a breeding program and, in 1992, started reintroducing the P-horse in Mongolia. Officials here estimate that at least 300 of the horses, immigrants and their offspring, now inhabit the somewhat protected lands of national parks. About 170 live in this large park 60 miles west of Ulan Bator, the capital, and the rest are in two remote parks in the western Gobi.

"We are in the fifth generation of takhi that have been born here," the Hustai park deputy director, Ts. Sukhtulga, said at lunch. "Some 130 are native born, and they are all in good shape and adapting to their environment in the wild."

Peter Zahler, assistant director for Asia at the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York, agreed that the program was "going extremely well."

Oliver A. Ryder, a geneticist who has worked with the P-horses and other endangered species at the San Diego Zoo, called the first stage of reintroduction a success. "The horses have successfully acclimatized and are breeding there," Dr. Ryder said. "But the park is not large enough to sustain a large population by itself, and at some point the problem will be one of managing the growing herds."

The party that was climbing the high slope for a closer look could see that the horses were comfortably adapted to their new home. The visitors were James R. Wingard, a lawyer from Montana who studies the illegal exploitation of Mongolian animals for the Wildlife Conservation Society and the World Bank; Kirk Olson, a doctoral student in wildlife biology at the University of Massachusetts; a Mongolian guide; and a photographer and a reporter from The New York Times.

From a distance of 300 yards, the group watched the P-horses foraging in the late afternoon under a clear blue sky, a picture of pastoral serenity. The grass was short, but green and good. The horses bent their heads to eat with what only seemed to be their undivided attention.

As the group climbed higher, with locusts springing in front of our steps and agitated birds, kites, circling overhead, the stallion raised its head, on alert. The natural wariness of the horses, an essential attribute of wildness, was clearly undiminished by their captive ancestry.

At this sign, the horses moved slowly with the stallion, without panic, never straying from the group, always keeping a wide separation from the intruders downslope. Getting a good look at P-horses would be no stroll in the park.

The visitors - by this time, more than an hour later, I had retreated to the truck as a favor to aging legs - continued the ascent and crept into a stand of trees, surprising a red deer. They tried to outflank the horses and come on them from the other side, or find others. This was one of the 16 harems in the park, and its small number suggested that other members might be grazing nearby, where the stretch of grass disappeared behind the woods.

Night was falling before they gave up the quest. They did get fairly close and take pictures, but as it happened, we got the best close-ups of P-horses on the way back to camp, in the dark.

Off to the side of the road, three wild horses were still foraging in the moonlight. Startled and confused, they did not run away, as expected, but trotted onto the road ahead.

We drove the last miles to camp escorted by the takhi, their swaggering rumps prominent in our headlights all the way.

Przewalski's horse lived on the Eurasian plains for thousands of years. Some of the horses in the Pleistocene cave paintings in France, Dr. Ryder noted, "are uncannily similar to today's Przewalski."

But recognition of this horse as a separate species did not come until 1879, with the arrival of Col. Nikolai Przewalski in Mongolia. A Russian of Polish descent, he was on a secret mission to beat the British into Tibet, one more foray (unsuccessful, it turned out) in the "great game" of British-Russian imperial rivalry in the 19th century.

The mission's cover as a scientific expedition rescued Przewalski from total obscurity. He correctly identified animal skins brought to him as those from a strain of wild horse, perhaps the last to avoid extinction. At first, some scientists thought it could be the progenitor horse, a distant ancestor of the domestic horse.

Recent research disputes the idea. Teri L. Lear, an expert in horse genetics at the University of Kentucky (where people know their horses), said comparisons of mitochondrial DNA, the genetic material inherited through the maternal line, showed that the P-horse and the domestic horse diverged from a common ancestor 500,000 years ago.

Dr. Lear cited the dissertation research of a former student, Jennifer Myka, that showed that the only clearly distinctive difference between the two species was in the number of their chromosomes, a reason some scientists classify the P-horse a subspecies, not truly separate.

The P-horse has 66; the domestic horse 64. Dr. Ryder said more detailed investigations had isolated other genetic markers in the P-horse that were not found in the domestic strain. "But the differences are very small," he said.

Scientists agree that the two animals are the most closely related of the equids, the other living today being African wild asses and donkeys, Asiatic asses and three species of zebra. The close relationship, Dr. Lear said, "is reflected in the P-horse's ability to produce fertile offspring with domestic horses."

This is a matter of both concern and opportunity for the reintroduction program in Mongolia. Officials here emphasize that the domestic horses in the parks are kept in corrals, away from interbreeding temptations. A further concern is that the introduced horses arrived already carrying domestic genes.

All the P-horses bred in captivity descend from 12 ancestors caught in Mongolia and taken to zoos and wildlife parks in Europe in the early 20th century. But there is no saying how much mixing of the two species has occurred along the way.

Scientists are of two minds over interbreeding and inbreeding.

Waltraut Zimmermann, a biologist at the zoo in Cologne, Germany, which has supplied the program with P-horses, said: "None is strictly pure. Sometimes you can't see it. Sometimes you see it in their tails. If the wild horse mates with a domestic, the hybrid offspring will have only 65 chromosomes. But future generations will be back at 66 again."

Dr. Ryder said a measure of interbreeding was not only inevitable, but perhaps beneficial. "If our goal is to preserve genetic diversity," he said, "it may be that the wild population must have some degree of gene flow from the domestic horse."

The first efforts to return the takhi to their homeland were organized by the Foundation for the Preservation and Protection of the Przewalski Horse in the Netherlands. It started the program with 16 horses shipped in 1992 to the Hustai park and a western site, Takhin Tal. An additional western site, Khomin Tal, now has a small herd of wild horses.

Over the years Austria, France, Germany and Ukraine also contributed horses, usually under the guidance of scientists and veterinarians associated with the International Takhi Group, based in Switzerland and Mongolia. In August, France released 12 more horses in the western Gobi. China is developing an introduction program of its own.

Christian Walzer, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Vienna who has overseen several P-horse reintroductions, said the animals were kept under close observation in large electrified enclosures for the first year or two. This gives them time to develop antibodies to tick-borne diseases and adapt to their new environment, particularly the bitter cold winters.

The adjustment is harder in the harsh, arid climate at the western parks than here at Hustai, Dr. Walzer said. Altogether, the horses are expected to produce 15 to 20 foals this year.

In a cautious assessment, Dr. Walzer said: "Fifteen years is nothing. It looks good now, with a potential to be successful in the long run. A hundred years later, they will see if we were successful."

Mongolian officials said the immediate goal was to have at least 500 takhi roaming free in the national parks. The officials are studying other sites suitable for supporting the wild horses and far enough from livestock ranges so as not to invite opposition and poaching by herders.

Mr. Wingard, the American lawyer who spends part of each year in Mongolia assessing its programs for protecting endangered wildlife, praised the Hustai park efforts to curb raids on its wildlife and win support of herders on adjacent lands. "This is certainly one of the best-managed national parks in the country," he said.

One morning, Mr. Wingard stopped at a ger, the traditional Mongolian domed tent, to visit a park ranger, one of 16 who patrol the perimeter for poachers. Wildlife experts complain that this is inadequate protection.

The ranger, Dorj, invited the visitors in for tea and hard cheese. He had a radio for alerts of work to do. "Not a lot of poachers in this area," he said, cautious with his words to strangers.

Dorj's own domestic horse was tethered outside. He rides it on patrol an hour early each morning and again in late afternoon. Yes, he has seen the wild horses many times, and they are doing well. His 13-year-old son showed up on his own horse. Mongolia is still, and again, a land of the horse.

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