Worthy of Worship

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 38 No. 2, February 2018

By Bittu Sahgal 


Photo: Shivaram Subramaniam

Haven knows all of us need happy stories… and we have one right here on this page.

Przewalski’s horse Equus ferus przewalskii, which managed to survive the trials of life for three or four million years was declared officially extinct in the wild in 1966. But a very determined operation, led by very determined field biologists, zoo professionals from the National Zoo and the Smithsonian Institute, U.S.A., brought the species back from the brink. And it took seven years of artificial insemination work before a successful release back into the wild was possible. 

At one point in 1950 there were just 12 of the dun-coloured, near-extinct horses left alive, all of them captive. This number has risen to around 2,000 and these horses can now be seen in China, Russia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia, where conservation photographer Shivaram Subramaniam, shot this image, in the Hustai National Park, a wilderness which harbours around 500 of the wild horses and also supports around 200 bird and 50 mammal species, including Argali sheep, red deer, lynx… and marmots galore.

An incredible number of heroes were involved in the resurrection saga, but most agree that the name Claudia Feh, a Swiss behavioural ecologist stands out. The moment she saw one ‘P-Horse’ in captivity she fell in love and decided there and then that the equines deserved to live free. Over two decades Feh won the support of Mongolian herders, biologists and officials who worked ceaselessly to nurture the precious rewilded seed population.

Of course the species is still far from secure, given the looming threat from climate change, which impacts the feather and brome grass pastures in their Chentai Mountain home. Genetic swamping from huge wandering herds of domestic horses is also a lurking danger. 
But what a long way we have come! Once kept alive by sheer benevolence, the horses and their co-inhabitants today earn much of their keep from tightly-controlled tourism.

Locals know the horse as takhi, which, roughly translated, means ‘spirit’, or ‘worthy of worship’ – which the Przewalski’s horse, all of wild nature, indeed is.

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