Before I left Ulaanbaatar on the Expedition arrangements had been made for me to go to Khomyn Tal for three specific days…in on one day and out on another. I left Hovd with the driver/cook and guide on July 27 for the long run east. It took around nine and half hours and we arrived at dusk. By the time we got to the research camp it was dark. The staff members present let us use a ger for the night, which was much appreciated. The next morning we set up our tents not far away.
On hand were two of the Mongolian ranger/researchers and one French volunteer, who spoke good English. He explained the routine to me. I wasn’t sure what to expect and had not assumed any particular assistance since I knew from my very short trip there in 2006 there is always much to do. So I thought that we might be driving around the reserve area on our own looking for the horses every day. But a much better plan was suggested, which was that I would go out in both the morning and evening with whoever was assigned for that time slot to either locate the horses and check on them or to follow a pre-determined two of the three family groups for an hour each doing behavioral observations. This was perfect! In return we used the Land Cruiser for three of the drives, donating our petrol and wear and tear. The camp vehicles were a Russian fergon van and a small white jeep, so we could offer more comfortable “accomodation”.
The reintroduction project at Khomyn Tal in Zavkhan Aimag, (which is in western Mongolia) after many years of planning and breeding of takhi who would be acclimated and able to survive in Mongolia through the use of semi-reserves in the French Alps, officially began in 2004 with the shipment of 22 horses. It is the brainchild and inspiration of Dr. Claudia Feh who is still in charge of the project but who, unfortunately, I was unable to meet with. I did go to Khomyn Tal on my second trip to Mongolia in 2006, met her then, and have wanted to go back ever since. So this year I finally made it.
I will be doing an extensive, more science-oriented post reporting on my interview with Florian and what I learned about the project, but for now I just want to share what I saw…these wonderful wild horses and the place they live:
One difference between the project at Khomym Tal and the other two reintroduction sites, Takhiin Tal and Hustai National Park, both of which I’ve also been to, is that the horses are quite acclimated to the presence of humans who they know or, in my case, a human who is with someone they know. Dr. Feh told me in 2006 that she didn’t believe there was a reason why they should fear people and being able to approach them closely allowed a visual examination that did not require tranquilizing them with the attendant risks that that entails. This approach clearly has not changed, as you’ll see.
So I went out with one of the rangers and sat next to him as he did his behavioral observations, recording certain specific things by voice. And got an eyeful of equine wonderfulness.
The project is located in a remote river valley, with an upland and some mountains. There are local herder families and much effort has been made over the years to create and maintain a cordial relationship.
After around an hour, one after the other, the three family groups left the sheds. One grazed past us up onto this hillside.
The other two went in the same direction but on the valley floor. The social organization of the Khomyn Tal takhi, of which there are now 53, seems to differ from that of the other two locations. There are three family groups, each with a dominant stallion and a lead mare. But they merge into one herd on and off through the day and the stallions get along, although I was told that two of them don’t like each other. There is also a “bachelor” group of five, which has two young mares in it, for reasons currently unknown, and one young stallion born with very short ears who lives on his own.
One of the great things about going out with the rangers is that it was during the part of the day, morning and evening, when the light was terrific.
When doing behavioral observations rangers like Florian must follow the horses wherever they go and whatever the weather. The weather part could be pretty uncomfortable in the winter and spring, but the scenery, well…
There is other wildlife around, like Mongolian gazelles. I had to crop in quite a bit so you can see them at all. Zooming in on my iMac, I’ve got what I need for one or two nice paintings.
I got to see and record quite a variety of behaviors, including these two young stallions. I found it interesting that the foal just stood close to them until the serious bumping and then a kick happened. But he still didn’t move very far.
I didn’t go with Florian the first time he followed the horses because I wasn’t sure how far it would be and was afraid that I might inadvertently affect his observations as a stranger. But the second time we were at the sheds and when the horses started to move off, he said to come on along. Oh my goodness. Ok. So off I walked on a parallel path with two family groups, around thirty horses who paid no attention to me. We all just walked along together on a lovely summer morning.
I took the next photo for a personal memory of what it was like to, literally, walk in the hoofprints of the world’s only surviving true wild horse.
There was finally an opportunity to have my picture taken holding Explorers Club Flag 179 with takhi in the background. It would have been nice to have been closer, but the ranger’s observation routine took precedence.
In some ways it was a difficult stay. The mosquitos were really bad where we were near the river and it got very hot for a couple of the days, so exploring much on foot was limited. I did do some sketching and managed one watercolor, the view from my tent. You can see the sketches I did of the horses here.
The time to depart arrived, but not before we were invited to lunch by one of the rangers who had his family with him. His wife made us a tasty boortz soup (homemade noodles with bits of dried mutton or goat meat in it). Then we were on our way. I didn’t see any of the horses, so just enjoyed a last look at the scenery.
But this was just the first stop, albeit a most special one, on the second phase of the 2015 WildArt Mongolia Expedition.