Wild Horses with Wings

March 15, 2006

Like the mythical steed Pegasus, Claudia Feh’s wild horses have winged their way across half a world to alight in the Mongolian pastures they vanished from a quarter of a century earlier.

In one of the most remarkable reintroductions of a locally extinct species, the Rolex Laureate has now transported two consignments of Przewalski horses – regarded as the most ancient equine line still extant – from France to Mongolia, as part of her ambitious plan to help return the world’s last wild horse to its native habitat.

More notably still, she has engaged the local nomads of the Khomiin Tal in the challenge of restoring and protecting the habitat for the wild horse and the other animals and birds of the Mongolian steppe.

In August 2005, the Swiss-born behavioural ecologist escorted her second group of 10 horses by plane from France to Mongolia to join the 12 she had shipped a year earlier. Together they now form the nucleus of a herd that will help re-establish the breed in one of its traditional homelands, where it has been a focal element of local culture and folklore for thousands of years – the last place on earth where Przewalski horses had existed in their natural setting.

Despite being born in southern France and never having been in Asia before, the horses transported by Feh and her colleagues in 2004 have adapted rapidly to their new environment. “They are fat,” she laughs. “More so than in France. We hope they breed and we may see the first foals towards the end of May or June [2006].” The newcomers also adjusted quickly. Within 48 hours of their arrival, they had cantered round the whole 130 square kilometre buffer zone they occupy next to the Khar Us Nuur National Park.“ They went everywhere!” says Feh, with obvious delight.

Equally rewarding was the interest displayed by the nomad community in the project when Feh held the first official gathering of the Wild Horse Mesh, a knowledge exchange between the people of the Mongolian steppe and conservation scientists. The meeting, which involved nearly two thirds of the local populace, took place last September in a local community hall and former school, which have been rescued from demolition and restored partly through funds from Feh’s Rolex Award.

“We presented them with information about biodiversity, about evolution and extinction, and asked them about the birds, animals and plants of the local steppe,” she explains. “There was naturally some scepticism and caution to begin with, but we were very careful to share knowledge, not to teach. And they joined in, particularly when the discussion turned to pastoralism, the condition of the pasture and animals, and the effect this has on the survival of the people.

”Claudia Feh hopes that by sharing knowledge and insights, the nomads and scientists will, over time, develop a system of management for the region that will meet the needs of the people and its distinctive wildlife.

Julian Cribb

Learn more about Claudia Feh

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