The year was 1969 and a herder in western Mongolia spotted a rare takhi (wild horse) in the distance. It was and extraordinary find as so few takhi were left in the wild. Alas, it was also the final sighting; with no new reports thereafter, scientists had to declare the species extinct in the wild - the result of poaching, overgrazing by livestock and human encroachment on their breeding grounds.
All was not lost for the takhi, however, as a dozen individual horses were known to exist in zoos outside Mongolia - their ancestors had been captured by game hunters in the early 20th century. A small group of conservationists dedicated themselves to breeding the animals with the hope that one day they could be reintroduced to Mongolia.
The conservationists did not fare so well with Mongolia's suspicious communist government, but when democracy arrived in the early 1990s they were welcomed with open arms. By that time the worldwide population was around 1500, scattered around zoos in Australia, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands.
Between 1992 and 2004 takhi were reintroduced into Mongolia at Khustain National Park, Takhiin Tal in Gov-Altai, and Khomiin Tal in Zavkhan. Today there are more than 200 takhi in Khustain, 80 in Takhiin Tal and 12 in Khomiin Tal. Given the political and logistical challenges to the project, their reintroduction is nothing short of miraculous, making it one of the best conservation stories of our times.
The takhi, also know as Przewalki's horse (named after the Polish explorer who first 'discovered' the horse in 1878), are now descended from the bloodline of three stallions, so computerised recodrds have been introduced to avoid inbreeding. They are the last remaining wild horse worldwide, the forerunner of the domestic horse, as depicted in cave paintings in France. They are not simply horses, that have become feral, or wild, as found in the USA or Australia, but a genetically different species, boasting two extra chromosomes in their DNA make-up.
Within the parks, the laws of nature are allowed to run their course; and average of five foals are killed by wolves every year in Khustain. The park gets locals onside by hiring herders as rangers, offering cheap loans to others and offering employment at a cheese-making factory on the outskirts of the park.
For more info check out www.treemail.nl/takhi
Source: Lonely Planet Mongolia (5th Edition May 2008)