Tracking Takhi On The Steppe
Updated: Jul 25, 2020
When I am not chasing elephants around in Myanmar or shaking my fist at my computer screen in Virginia as I try to make some R-code do what I want, I spend the remainder of my time working on re-introduced Przewalski’s horse (Equus ferus przewalskii) in Mongolia. They are the only truly wild horse in the world and after going extinct in the wild in the 1960’s they have been successfully re-introduced at a number of locations in northern China and Mongolia. Our work in Mongolia is based around the population of Przewalski’s horse (or takhi as they are called in Mongolia) at Hustai Nuuru National Park, where we study their movement behaviour and ecology in a collaboration with the park ecologists and colleagues at Minnesoata Zoo. The takhi have a very strong social structure and we currently track dominant mares in social groups of females (or harems) each one guarded by a single stallion. I talk a bit more about the challenges of tracking male takhi and the elusive bachelor groups in another post here.
Hustai Nuuru National Park is a two hour drive from the capital Ulaanbataar. The city is rapidly expanding with a lot of foreign investment and mining money pouring into the country in recent years. We usually stay in a hotel near Sükhbaatar Square outside the houses of parliament. It’s a fun and strange city in many ways, one of which is the brilliant smiley faces someone has painted on the man-hole covers. Traffic is insane and things like lanes for traffic and pedestrian crossings are purely aspirational statements. The coal fired power station in the middle of the city and the smoke from wood fires in the sprawling ger district somewhat dampen the environmental effect of almost everyone driving hybrid cars that they get on the cheap from Japan. A ger is the traditional Mongolian circular tent referred to as a Yurt in other countries. They also have a fantastic dinosaur museum full of brilliant fossils that I entirely failed to see.
Hustai is a little gem of a national park (~50,000 ha) made up primarily of mountain steppe habitat with small patches of birch forest. We usually visit between spring and autumn because the -300C temperatures make it too hard to work in winter (if you are a western pansy like me). The park is unfenced and surrounded by families of herders with a combined 80,000 head of cattle, goats, horses and sheep. Apart from a herd of nearly 400 takhi, Hustai is home to an incredible array of wildlife including raptors like golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), steppe eagle (Aquila nipalensis), Amur falcon (Falco amurensis) and lammergeyer (Gypaetus barbatus), abundant passerines, fabulous wildflowers, red deer (Cervus elaphus), Siberian ibex (Capra sibirica), grey wolves (Canis lupus) and little cute fat marmots (Marmota sibirica) running all over the place. While at the park we stay in the relative lap of luxury in gers at the tourist camp where I can get away with being a vegetarian (not an option out in the country side).
At the time I joined the project 5 GPS collars were active on mares at Hustai and we had learned a lot about their movement including seasonal patterns of home range size and where and when they utilise artificial water sources. The 5 harems we tracked were not really using a lot of the park, even though there were plenty of grazing areas that are suitable. Are the takhi just staying put where they were introduced because they don’t know anywhere else and are not inclined to move? Are they facing pressure from predators? Competition from livestock? Is water a limiting factor? Or have we just collared the few harems who don’t move much and there are other more mobile groups out there?
To get at some of these questions I travelled with colleagues from Minnesota Zoo to collar a further 10 harems this year. The folks from Minnesota Zoo have also supported the construction of new permanent water holes in the central area of the park, in the hope that they will act as a link between two occupied areas of habitat. On this trip we targeted harems that were hard to get to and were thought to be more mobile than the ones we already have.
The rangers and research staff at Hustai are amazing and worked very hard to get us the horses we needed. It went down to the wire but we did deploy all of our collars and the number of tracked harems is now up to 15 which is almost half of the harems in the park. During the long periods of waiting while the vet and the takhi biologists or protection manager were carefully stalking our desired horse, I held some circus lessons for my colleagues and the rangers. In return the rangers put on a show of wrestling competitions and our volunteer form New Zealand gave us archery lessons.
The data from the new collars on takhi is already pouring in and revealing how they use the park in more detail, including leaving the park to feed in wheat fields which was not previously known. Proximity sensors on the collars will give us an insight into how different social groups interact with each other in time and space and we will be able to see the effects of those added water holes.