The Przewalski horse, or takh as it is known in Mongolia, is the world’s last truly wild horse. A close relative of the horses that roamed through central Asia, China and Western Europe in prehistoric times, the Przewalski horse, with its large head and upright, bristly mane, looks strikingly similar to the horses in the 17,000-year-old cave paintings of Lascaux in south-west France.
A visit at the age of 19 to these famous paintings inspired Claudia Feh, already a horse-lover, to devote her life to studying semi-wild populations of horses. Years later she studied the Camargue horses of southern France and then the highly endangered Przewalski horse (Equus ferus przewalskii).
Mongolians regard the horse as man’s messenger to the gods, and the takh commands the status of a sacred idol. However, the Przewalski horse, originally native to several countries, was last seen living in the wild in Mongolia in the mid-1970s.
Feh has chosen the Przewalski horse as the flagship species for an ambitious conservation project based in a Mongolian village. This initiative, the Wild Horse Mesh, will provide local nomads and both international and Mongolian scientists with a unique opportunity to exchange knowledge at a multidisciplinary learning centre. They will also work together on field projects — for their mutual benefit and that of the natural environment.
The principal objectives of the Wild Horse Mesh are habitat protection and restoration, and direct action in favour of endangered plants, birds and animals, particularly the Przewalski horse — in close collaboration with, and for the benefit of, nomad families. It will also provide a health-care education and vaccination programme, centred on the needs of children. For this imaginative and thoroughly researched project, which will bring major benefits to the nomadic people of Mongolia, to the natural environment and to the Przewalski horse, as well as to scientific knowledge, Claudia Feh has won a Rolex Award for Enterprise.
A Groundbreaking Approach
A world-renowned expert in behavioural ecology, especially in relation to horses, Feh has been able, thanks to her decades of work, to challenge many traditional views on equine husbandry, including the widespread belief that mixing adult stallions and mares can be dangerous.
In 1992, she established TAKH, an organisation devoted to the restitution of sustainable, independent populations of the Przewalski horse to its native habitat, and the restoration of this habitat. Determined to overcome problems associated with captive breeding, TAKH has spent the past decade raising a natural herd of Przewalski horses on a 400-hectare tract of land in southern France’s remote Causse Méjan, a high-altitude area selected by Feh for its similarity to the harsh Mongolian steppe.
This approach differs from those taken by two other organisations established in the early 1990s to reintroduce the Przewalski horse to Mongolia. Both of these, the Foundation for the Preservation of the Przewalski Horse and the International Takhi Group, have instead shipped captive horses from zoos to Mongolia. Nevertheless, all three projects complement each other — the IUCN (the International Union for Conservation of Nature) recommends that reintroduction programmes comprise the release of three to five geographically isolated populations.
Adaptation to the Wild
All 1,500 Przewalski horses alive today are descended from 13 captive animals and most still live in zoos. Such a limited gene pool makes any mammal population susceptible to genetic imperfections.
In the early 1990s, having acquired 11 genetically compatible horses from European zoos, Feh took the pioneering – and to many experts risky – decision to allow them to live together freely, to mate naturally and form their own social groupings. She observed that in captive communities adult stallions could fight to the death. Furthermore, other aggressive behaviour is associated with equine captivity, where space is limited and relationships inhibited. Stallions have been known, for example, to kill foals. Having spent 6,000 hours studying free-living horses, Feh reasoned that this anti-social behaviour would disappear in the wild, boosting the horses’ chances of survival.
Feh’s gamble has paid off. "Our stallions have established a natural dominance hierarchy," she explains, "and, while they ritualise fighting, real fighting is no longer a serious problem." Infanticide, she adds, disappeared completely in the second generation. Yet she readily admits that many people in the equine community remain sceptical: "They have to see for themselves in order to be converted," she adds.
A third generation of Przewalski horses is being born at TAKH’s French reserve, Le Villaret, and the organisation now has 55 animals. The horses have organised themselves into five family groups and two stallion groups. This is the typical social organisation of free-living horses and is crucial to their long-term survival.
For the horses – which have highly developed social behaviour – learning to live together and how to cooperate despite competition is decisive for any reintroduction project. And this is as true for the people involved.
"Cooperation is my favourite subject," says Feh. "It’s one of the driving forces of evolution, yet it’s largely neglected in favour of studies on competition."
In preparing for the reintroduction of Przewalski horses to Mongolia from France — the first stage began in September 2004 — it became clear to Feh that the animal’s long-term survival depended on the involvement of the local nomads, whose fast-growing herds of goats and sheep are overgrazing the steppe grassland. She also recognised the possibility of using the Przewalski as a flagship species for a broader, integrated conservation and development project.
Feh’s search for a reintroduction site for Przewalski horses began in 1996. She settled on the remote region of Khomiin Tal, a 2,500-square-kilometre tract of land in western Mongolia that provides a buffer zone to the Khar Us Nuur National Park. The site fulfils the ecological requirements for the horses in terms of water, food and natural shelter, and is conveniently confined by natural boundaries, including a lake, a river and high sand dunes.
The 35 to 50 nomadic families living in the region — their numbers vary from year to year — are enthusiastic about the reintroduction, looking forward to seeing the horses roaming freely again. Feh’s Rolex Award will go towards restoring and equipping the headquarters of the Wild Horse Mesh. It will, Feh predicts, bring the region back to life, employing local people and providing much needed radio equipment.
TAKH has built a fence around the 135-square-kilometre release site. Local people are already noticing the difference in vegetation cover and composition. TAKH has also started to negotiate with local herders with the long-term aim that, in 20 years’ time, they will keep their domestic breeding horses out of the entire 2,500-square-kilometre reintroduction site. Allowing the Przewalski horse to breed with domestic horses would threaten the reintroduction scheme.
A Unique Annual Forum
The Wild Horse Mesh will run initially for three years, and will include an annual, six-day forum. The theme of the first environmental forum, which will start in August 2005, is, not surprisingly, "the horse".
Linked closely to the Przewalski horse release programme, events will include talks from TAKH’s Mongolian and French scientific staff, as well as local and international speakers. Topics will include the social behaviour of wild horses, horse parasites, and the horse as a Buddhist symbol. Local speakers will share their expertise on a number of subjects, including the use of acupuncture on horses and traditional pasture management. These local collaborators are crucial to the success of the project, Feh says.
And in a bid to attract maximum local interest, fieldwork will include a demonstration of Mongolian racehorse training, as well as a traditional horse race.
Open to everyone, the programme will be advertised at the Mongolian universities of Khovd and Ulaan Baatar, and announced on local radio stations. Khomiin Tal families will be personally informed of the programme and provided with transport if they wish to attend.
Foreign experts will stay for a minimum of two weeks, giving them enough time to engage in collaborative fieldwork. They are expected to contribute their expertise voluntarily, and are keen to do so, given the unique nature of the project.
Highly Original Approach
Her remarkable progress is testament to Claudia Feh’s patience, tenacity and extraordinary spirit of enterprise. Despite giving up her degree course in 1974 so she could spend more time observing her beloved horses, Feh has achieved academic credibility and success as a world-renowned expert in equine ethology. In 1986 her doctoral thesis in behavioural neurosciences was recognised by the University of Marseille, and she continues to contribute regularly to scientific journals.
Dr Patricia D. Moehlman, chair of the IUCN/SSC Equid Specialist Group, describes Feh’s wide-ranging environmental project as "very original and innovative. This is the first reintroduction project that I know of that from the start will provide in-depth education for local people. I think that her project will make a tremendous difference in the conservation of wild and free-roaming Przewalski horses."
Published in 2004