Part 7: The 2016 WildArt Mongolia Expedition- The Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project And Hustai National Park (our last stops)

An impressive stallion watches over his family group at Hustai National Park

All journeys come to an end and the Expedition concluded near Hustai National Park, one of three places in Mongolia where takhi/Przewalski’s horse have been reintroduced. Of course we went to see the horses, but our main mission was to spend time with the staff of the Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project.

Hustai also has a healthy population of endangered Siberian marmots
The second time we went out to see the horses we got quite an eyeful, four family groups in sight

I had been in contact with Greg Goodfellow, the project scientist, before I left for Mongolia in mid-May. We arranged for the Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project to be featured by the Expedition. A mutually agreed upon statement was written which you can read here. It provides all the basic information on what the project mission and goals are.

From left to right: Oliver Hartman, Greg Goodfellow, Batbaatar Tumurbaatar and Kim Campbell Thornton
There was one pen full of bankhar puppies, as cute as puppies are anywhere

The project’s first step had been to go out into the countryside and find pure bankhar through DNA testing. There are a lot of mixed heritage dogs due to the Russians turning loose their German Shepherd guard dogs when they left Mongolia after the fall of the Soviet Union, plus other breeds and types have found their way into the country over time. But enough dogs were found to start a breeding program. These were temporary kennels that had just been set up since the project needed to relocate the dogs away from UB. The new permanent ones are in place now, but I don’t have any photos of them yet.

A bankhar, the traditional guard and livestock guardian dog of the Mongols.

Bankhar are a “landrace”, not a breed, which means they developed their traits through adaptation to the environment they live in, not human selection. The ones I’ve encountered over the years, the “ger dogs”, have always been highly aggressive when we’ve approached a ger in a vehicle or when we’re leaving. And that’s their job. Usually they’re ok once we’ve been in their owner’s ger, but sometimes I’ve seen the dogs held even when we leave. So it was a surprise to see these calm dogs who made eye contact and sought an interaction even with strangers. Still, no fingers through the wire.

Batbaatar, one of the staff who is trained as a wildlife biologist, brought out one of the big male bankhar so we could get photos without the wire in the way. He’s a pretty serious-looking dog
10a. bankhar.jpg
But not always. He’s starting to shed out his winter coat so looks a bit moth-eaten
One of the puppies got loose and dashed around, but was “captured” and returned to his pen
Batbaatar showing how the dogs are weighed as Oliver shoots some video and Greg Goodfellow looks on
These pups are all destined to be sent to various herder’s to be livestock guardian dogs. This female caught my eye. Something about her that I really liked. Greg promised to update me on her story. And it turns out that she and another pup got to their new home down in the Gobi and promptly escaped. Fortunately both were recaptured. They were taken back to UB to be placed in a new home. I’ll update her story when I can
The project ger, set up not far from the dogs. Oliver is doing a filmed interview with Greg
Hustai National Park is a beautiful place and only two hours from Ulaanbaatar
“Hustai” means “birch” in Mongolia. The park is in the mountain-steppe ecosystem and, at higher elevations there are areas of birch forest like the one ahead

The second day of our visit we went with Greg and Baagii as they visited two herder families who have project dogs. There is a protocol, a work in progress as new information and knowledge is gained, for how the recipients are to get the dogs to stay with the livestock 24/7. Most herders have only had ger dogs. The livestock guardian function pretty much died out during socialist times due to collectivization and many being killed. Herders also started to use lethal methods of predator control like poison. So what the project is actually doing is not introducing a new thing, but reviving an old traditional use of the dogs.

Two of the project pups following their owner. They’d been at the ger so Greg wanted to see how they would do with livestock
One of the pups, nine months old and personality plus, but what would he do?
It took some coaxing and direction, also the tossing of some stones to signal that he was to go to the livestock and not stay with the humans, but he did what he was supposed to do
This is what the project people want, a dog that stays with the sheep and goats, relaxed but keeping watch
The herder who the project was working with rode up and consented to be interviewed by Oliver and Kim, with Batana translating, a job he did for us a number of times and very well. Mongols are not sentimental about animals so it was interesting to see the open affection the man showed towards the pup
We took our leave and drove off to the second ger. The herder was in town with his wife, who was having a baby, so a friend filled in. Both pups were at the ger and looked to be in good shape.

I had made arrangements in advance for a special late lunch, khorhog, the “real” Mongolian BBQ. Greg was happy to set it up since the purchase of a sheep by visitors is something that supports the local community and it turned out that our “supplier” was also someone who had project dogs.

Khorhog- mutton, in this case, roasted in a metal container with hot rocks. It was delicious!
The valley of the Tuul Gol, which also flows through Ulaanbaatar. Hustai National Park is to the left
From left to right: Batbaatar Tumurbaatar, Susan Fox, Oliver Hartman, Kim Campbell Thornton, Greg Goodfellow (photo by our most excellent guide, Batana)

We had plans to go horse riding and takhi watching on our last day, but the weather had other ideas. A very strong front moved in overnight with heavy wind and rain. In the morning it was pouring and blowing. Batana called in to see what the forecast was, which was that the storm would continue through the day and beyond. It was pretty miserable. We’d had more than our fair share of wind and rain on the Expedition. With no prospect of clearing in sight, our guide and drivers said we needed to pack it up and head back into town and I agreed. Another driver had been sent out, so we and all our gear went into the two Land Cruisers as quickly as possible. Puugii, our van driver, and Soyoloo, our cook, stayed behind to take down and pack everything else. So we all said our goodbyes and parted. Nomadic Journeys arranged for us to stay at the Bayangol Hotel at no cost to us, a consideration that was greatly appreciated. So in we came from three adventurous weeks in the field to hot showers and soft beds, the 2016 WildArt Mongolia Expedition at its end.

I want to personally thank everyone who made the Expedition possible. First, the staff of Nomadic Journeys, who arranges these very “custom” trips for me every year, particularly Jan Wigsten, one of the owners, who listens to my ideas and plans, offers input and advice and, with the staff, makes my Mongolia travel dreams come true. And we don’t go anywhere without a solid, professional field crew: our super drivers Erdenebat and Puugii,, Soyoloo our wonderful cook and our guide Batana, who rose to every challenge. And Kim and Oliver who, no matter the conditions, and they were challenging at times in a variety of ways, could not have been better traveling companions. I loved being able to share some of “my” Mongolia with them both.

Final notes: Kim Campbell Thornton has written an excellent article on the Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project. You can read it here.

Oliver Hartman is a filmmaker and also a member of the Explorers Club. His company is called “Jungles in Paris”. You can check it out here.

Nomadic Journeys has made all my in-country travel arrangements in Mongolia since my second trip in 2006 (2o16 was trip no. 11). You can find out more about them and their special brand of sustainable, ecologically and culturally responsible travel here.

To learn more about takhi and Hustai National Park, go here.

The website of the Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project is here.



New Takhi Paintings for Mazaalai Art Gallery In Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia!

Grooming (Hustai Takhi) 8x10" oil
Grooming (Hustai Takhi) 8×10″ oil

I leave for my 11th trip to Mongolia on Saturday. Going with me will be five new small works in oil for Mazaalai Art Gallery, which represents me in Ulaanbaatar. All of them are of takhi/Przewalski’s horse from Hustai National Park, which I have visited seven times over the years and will once again this year. 10% of the sales price will be donated to Hustai. You can visit their Facebook page here. And here are the rest of the paintings.

Hustai Takhi Foal 8x10" oil
Hustai Takhi Foal 8×10″ oil
Good Grass (Hustai Takhi 6x6" oil
Good Grass (Hustai Takhi 6×6″ oil
Hustai Takhi Stallion oil 6x6"
Hustai Takhi Stallion oil 6×6″
Hustai Takhi Mare and Foal oil 5x7"
Hustai Takhi Mare and Foal oil 5×7″


New Painting Debut! “Summer Graze (Takhi Stallion)”

"Summer Graze (Takhi Stallion)
“Summer Graze (Takhi Stallion)  oil  12×16”

I never get tired of going to Hustai National Park in Mongolia. It’s the best place in the world to see takhi or, as they are known in the west, Przewalski’s horse. I saw this stallion with his harem in August of 2013. It had been a good year for all the animals in Mongolia, both domestic and wild. The takhi looked great!

Takhi harem, Hustai National Park
Takhi harem, Hustai National Park

Here’s part of the harem moving along for their morning graze. A dominant mare leads them and decides where they will go. The harem stallion usually brings up the rear, keeping an eye on everyone. At the time I was there I was told there were around 300 horses divided into 15 harems, plus some bachelor groups. Hustai National Park is only a two-hour drive, mostly on paved road, from Ulaanbaatar. So it should be on the “Must See” list for any animal or horse lover traveling to Mongolia.

Takhi/Przewalski’s horse is the only surviving species of true wild horse. At one point there were only 54 of them in the world. Now there are, I believe, over 2000. They have been reintroduced to three locations in Mongolia, including Hustai. The other locations are very remote and not set up for visitors, so this is the place to see them.

Mongolia Monday- New Painting Debut! “Morning At Hustai”

Morning at Hustai  16x24"  oil
Morning at Hustai 16×24″ oil

These two takhi/Przewalski’s horses were part of a harem of eight that I watched and photographed for quite awhile at Hustai National Park last September. This “grooming” behavior is as much about social connection and relationship reinforcement as it is about any actual grooming. The harem stallion is on the right and one of his mares is on the left. I loved being able to paint them in such beautiful morning light.

Mongolia Monday: 5 Photos Of Favorite Places- Hustai National Park

This installment of my occasional series “Five Photos of Favorite Places” features Hustai National Park, one of the three places in Mongolia where takhi/Przewalski’s horse has been reintroduced and by far the easiest to get to, since it’s only a two hour drive from Ulaanbaatar, the capital, and most of that is on tarmac road. You can view the other parts by scrolling down the Categories drop down menu in the right hand column to “5 Photos….

TTakhi stallion, April 2005- This was from my first trip to Mongolia in spring of 2005. It was freezing cold, literally, and it was very windy. But I was enchanted with my first look at the world's only true wild horse running free (I'd seen them for the very first time at the Berlin Zoo in October 2004). To me, this head shot sums up what they are about...a very special horse that looks like it just stepped out of a cave painting.
Takhi stallion, April 2005- This was from my first trip to Mongolia in spring of 2005. It was freezing cold, literally, and it was very windy. But I was enchanted with my first look at the world’s only true wild horse running free (I’d seen them for the very first time at the Berlin Zoo in October 2004). To me, this head shot sums up what they are about…a very special horse that looks like it just stepped out of a cave painting.
Takhi foals, September 2008. I always look forward to seeing the new generation when I visit Hustai and of course the foals are fun to watch as they romp around and play. There are now around 300 takhi in Hustai and they are doing well.
Takhi foals, September 2008. I always look forward to seeing the new generation when I visit Hustai and of course the foals are fun to watch as they romp around and play. There are now around 300 takhi in Hustai and they are doing well. The world population, counting both captive and reintroduced horses is around 2000. A studbook established in 1978 keeps track of every one of them.
Siberian marmot
Siberian marmot, July 2010. Hustai is one of the few places left where one can see marmots in any number. Their population crashed by close to 90% due to demand for their pelts by the Chinese. Now they are an endangered species where once there were millions. I’d gone to Hustai for the weekend with I driver I’d had before, but no guide, and Onroo didn’t speak English. But we got along fine with my little bit of Mongolian and a phrase book. It is a running joke between us that we will always stop for “taravak”….marmots, so I can try to get a good photo like this one.
Hustai landscape
Hustai landscape, August 2011. “Hustai” means “birch” in Mongolian. There are birch woods like these above a certain elevation on the mountains in the park. You can see two grazing takhi in the middle. From this point on up to the bare rocks like you can see in the background “bokh”, or elk, are to be found, the same genus as the Rocky Mountain and Roosevelt elk of the United States, but a different species.
Birches and blue sky, September 2012. Last year was the latest that I had visited the park and so I saw the fall colors for the first time. And they were spectacular!

“Enchanted Evening” Has Been Accepted Into “Art and the Animal”!

Enchanted Evening   36×40″ oil

I’m very proud to announce that my latest takhi painting “Enchanted Evening”,
has been accepted into the Society of Animal Artists’ 52nd Annual Exhibition of “Art and the Animal”. This is the fourth year in a row that I have had work in the show and they have all been Mongolia subjects, which pleases me a lot.

The exhibition will be held at the Hiram Blauvelt Art Museum, which is located in Oradell, New Jersey, and officially opens on the weekend of October 5-7. I plan to be there for all the festivities. More details later on as the opening approaches, but consider yourself invited!

The story behind the painting: Last August, nationally-known sculptor Pokey Park and I were on a two-week tour of the best wildlife watching locations. We were leaving Hustai National Park, one of the three places in Mongolia where takhi have been reintroduced, after a last horse-watching drive, which had already been very successful. Then, less than 50 feet from the road we spotted this small group of takhi coming down to a pool of water. We stopped and got our cameras ready. Would they come or not…

Trying to decide…
We’re thirsty!

And here’s a short video that I shot on my Flip HD. Unfortunately we ended up with a lot of cars stacked up behind us, just like a bear or bison jam in Yellowstone. One woman came up next to me out in plain view (I was behind the open door of the car, using it for kind of a blind) and spooked them, but at least they’d all been able to drink. Enjoy!

Mongolia Monday- Wildlife Profiles: Takhi

Takhi stallion, Hustai National Park, 2010

Species: Takhi or Przewalski’s horse (Equus ferus przewalskii)

Takhi, Khomiin Tal, 2006

Weight, height: approximately 300 kg or 660 lbs.; 13 hands (52 inches, 132 cm)

Takhi, Hustai National Park. 2005

Conservation Status: Endangered (IUCN Red List)

Takhi, Hustai National Park, 2011

Habitat Preference: Steppe, semi-desert; now also mountain steppe (Hustai)

Takhi group, Berlin Zoo, 2004 (first time I ever saw the species)

Best places to see takhi: In the wild: Hustai National Park, Mongolia. Captive animals: Many zoos and some reserves, including: San Diego Zoo, Denver Zoo, the National Zoo, the Berlin Zoo, the Wilds (near Cincinnati, Ohio)

Takhi leg stripes, Hustai National Park, 2005
Domestic Mongol horse with leg stripes, 2011

Interesting facts:

-Takhi are the only surviving species of true wild horse. What are called “wild horses” in the USA are feral domestic horses.

-The last wild takhi, a lone stallion, was spotted at a waterhole in the Dzungarian Gobi in 1969, and not long after the species was declared extinct in the wild. After WWII, only 55 survived in captivity, all descended from 13 founder animals. Today there are approximately 2000 takhi of which, as of 2011, 360 were at three release sites in Mongolia.

-Their range originally included, along with Mongolia: Belarus, China, Germany, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Poland, Russian Federation, Ukraine.

– Takhi have 66 chromosomes. Domestic horses have 64. They can mate and produce fertile offspring. It is estimated that they diverged around 500,000 years ago, so the speciation process is not complete. Domestic Mongol horses with takhi characteristics like carpal and tarpal leg stripes are fairly common, indicating a cross at some point in the past. Modern horses are not descendents of takhi.

-Other than a few instances of intensively hand-raised foals who would tolerate a rider while young, no one has ever “tamed” a takhi.

-They became known in the west when Col. Nikolai Przewalski brought a skull and skin, which had been presented to him at a border crossing between far western China and Mongolia, back to Russia. The official description was published in 1881.

New Drawings of Takhi

It’s been awhile since I’ve done some finished graphite drawings and that’s what I’ve been doing this week. I’ve always loved to draw, so it was fun to just sit with a pencil (a General’s Draughting Pencil) and paper (Strathmore 300 vellum bristol) and work from some of the takhi photos I’ve shot during my trips to Mongolia.

Tahki Stallion
Takhi foal
Takhi Stallion Head Study
Takhi Stallion "Snaking"

A French equid researcher I know told me that this body position is  known as “snaking”. It’s purpose is to get the stallion’s harem moving quickly. His low body position is suggestive of a stalking predator and triggers the response he wants from his mares. I’ll probably be doing a painting of the whole scene at some point, so this is a useful study.

All of these horses were photographed at Hustai National Park, which is an easy two-hour drive west of Ulaanbaatar.

Mongolia Monday: Flora And Fauna- Hustai National Park

The next ten or so posts will cover all the places I visited on this past trip, some familiar and well-loved and some new.

The two-week trip with Pokey emphasized the best wildlife viewing places that I’ve found. We headed west out of Ulaanbaatar on a sunny August morning….

and spent two productive days at Hustai, seeing lots of takhi and other wildlife. The wildflowers were still in bloom, too, which was lovely.

These horses were part of a group approaching a water hole right by the road; you'll have to wait for the painting to see the rest...
At first this harem was a long way off
But as we watched from behind a line of rocks, they drifted closer and closer
Finally, they grazed their way right past us in the fading light; it was quite wonderful to have them come so close
Marmots generally run straight for their holes when spooked, but for some reason we will never fathom, this one ran for a long way right down the middle of the road
These darian partridges were a new species for me
Black kite in a birch tree; "Hustai" means "birch" in Mongolian
Cinereous vulture, the largest Eurasian vulture which can weigh up to 30 lbs.
This grasshopper suddenly appeared on our windshield
Saw more spiders on the trip this year than ever before, including this one on a member of the phlomis family
Deep purple globe thistles