Set free in the Mongolian wild

July 26, 2012

By Petr Josek

Bulgan airport in the southwest part of Mongolia reminds me of a small train station from the spaghetti western film “Once Upon a Time in the West.” It’s slow, hot and once a week people wait for an airplane with no more then 20 passengers on board to arrive.

The day of July 17, 2012, was different.

The Czech Army plane Casa brought on board four Przewalski mares. They are endangered animals with a sandy brown coat and faintly striped legs, extinct in their homeland since the early 1970s.

Now the animals were landing on a dirt tarmac after a 6,000 km (3,728 miles) flight from the Czech Republic. It was a challenge for the pilots, required extra airport staff and was an attraction for local residents. It’s hard to say if the customs officer was taking pictures for professional reasons or just for himself as a souvenir from the unusual event.

The horses went from an air conditioned plane to the hot air of their predecessors’ homeland. From green grass to dry desert and after more then 17 hours on the plane, their journey had not finished yet. Another 250 km (155 miles) in old, unreliable vehicles awaited the animals, with over 70 kms of those on dirty bumping roads. Several dozen villagers came to wish good luck to their beloved animals – and they really needed it. After just a few minutes of driving one car stopped with a broken cooling system. Rangers quickly reloaded a box from it onto another car which already had one horse on board.

Time passed quickly. The sunset arrived and we were still on the asphalt.

We hit the dirt road deep in the night, dust went everywhere. The car convoy traveled at less then 30 km (18 miles) per hour and slowly approached the final destination of Takhin Tal reserve station in the Gobi desert. It was 1am when we arrived.

Boxes were unloaded off the trucks, the cages were quickly opened and the horses slowly left their unpleasant prison and went into a vast unknown drought plain.

“Horses don’t eat stones, let’s take them back, there is a plenty of good grass back in the Czech Republic”, said a soldier from the flying crew as he looked around the place. As soon as the horses disappeared into the night the group made their way to their traditional Mongolian yurt in a camp, under the incredible sky full of stars with the milky way shining all around it.

Nobody really knows how many lived here before, but Takhis, (the local name for horses) became extinct in the wild as hunters on the Chinese-Mongolian border shot them and forced them off their traditional territories.

The Prague zoo followed up on previous international efforts to reintroduce the endangered animals back to their home land and organized the air transport from Czech Republic to Mongolia.

The herds here number in the dozens rather than in the hundreds but so far the animals are slowly regaining their original instincts.

I’m not sure if they will learn how to eat stones to survive but I’m pretty sure that they belong here. And I, like the locals, wish them good luck.

One comment

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Very interesting article with outstanding photography. Although, I strictly wanted to see more on the photography subject, your story about these horses really hit a soft spot, and I completely forgot about my mission. I can always blog about photography, but these poor animals need someone to care.

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