Environmental risks and catastrophes
In wildlife situations a lot of animals are due to succumb to the consequences of extreme weather conditions, a critical shortage of food and/or water resources, competition with other species, predator pressure, fire, drought or any other nameable calamity.
In the case of the Przewalski horses the chance that many of them will perish is much greater, because of their history of prolonged captivity and the difficulties in adjusting that follow from this situation. The effects of possible calamities and environmental factors are less severe for a big population, because there will always remain enough survivors to overcome the numerical damage. Whereas external influences will have a much greater impact on small sub-populations, such as the one at Hustai, an example will perhaps elucidate the foregoing
Once in every ten to fifteen years Mongolia is visited by extreme harsh winters and is undergoing periods of protracted drought. During 2000 and 2001 the country had again been afflicted by such weather extremes. It is quite remarkable that not many casualties did occur among the free ranging Przewalski horses, although there had been temperatures as low as -38 C. The condition of the free roaming Przewalski horses remained relatively good. The death of two adult horses and a foal were caused by a series of unfortunate accidents. The mare and the foal both broke a leg in a rocky part of the Park and died.
The fate of the stallion was equally hapless: he got his leg stuck between some rocks, and after having vainly tried to release himself he perished. His remains were discovered by the managing director of the National Park Dr Bandi who noticed a stallion's head sticking out of the snow.
In January when winter was at its grimmest two foals fell a prey to wolves.
The extreme weather conditions had a greater effect on the sixteen animals that had arrived with the final transport from the Netherlands in May/June 2000. The first Mongolian winter would turn out to be fatal for five of them. From November onward the physical condition of the stallions began to deteriorate considerably, but the condition of the mares only worsened from January onward. Three mares and two stallions did not survive the bitter cold. Surplus feeding and humane intervention could not prevent the Hustai staff from losing these five animals.
The nomads that live in the buffer zone that surrounds Hustai National Park sustained serious damage. Due to overgrazing and moreover the drought of the last summer their livestock animals were in a rather bad shape when winter began. A lot of herdsmen had not made the right precautions and also had failed to purchase sufficient reserves of hay. The loss was great: hundreds of cattle (50%) died through malnutrition and frostbite.
The only ones that cashed in on the severe weather circumstances was Hustai's wolf population. Since the last two years they have been provided with an ample supply of prey. Their numbers are growing. Although the livestock in the Park's buffer zone remains an abundant supply of food, the wolves are developing a taste for wildlife. This will certainly put some pressure upon the Przewalski horses.
Until 1998 not many takhi were slaughtered by wolves, the only ones that had always been susceptible of becoming victimised were foals. However, from the moment on that the percentage of foals that were killed had increased to 26%, the Park's management thought it appropriate to take action. Culling was out of the question, because hunting is strictly prohibited within the boundaries of the Park. A very ingenious solution to the wolf problem was found. In the foaling season the wolves mostly seize their opportunity at night and in the early hours of the morning. During the first five days of its life a foal is at its most vulnerable. By rotation the Park's wardens and rangers will keep vigil and monitor the harems at night. When a wolf is spotted then they will try to chase it away by firing blank cartridges. These actions have some effect: in 2000 the number of casualties among takhi foals had fallen back to 7.7% (19% in 1999!). In 2001 and 2002 there was an 16% and 10% increase.
Hustai National Park has a very distinctive vegetation. Meanwhile the free roaming Przewalski horses instinctively know where - dependent on the time of year - they can find the best food and where in winter there is little snow. Even a deep layer of snow is no obstacle to them anymore. Where good quality grasses are hidden underneath thick covers of snow, the horses range themselves tightly to one another and start trampling. In this manner some of the snow is cleared revealing patches of nutritious green grass.
At Hustai there is also ample opportunity for the Przewalski horses to find shelter against heat, cold and against annoying insects.
Having the benefit of hindsight we now can say that by choosing the Hustai National Park for the reintroduction of Przewalski horses we have indeed been very lucky. There is an abundant supply of food and enough water to feed and drench hundreds of horses and other wild life. The Przewalski population seems to prosper well in this much fortunate habitat; proliferation is good and the mortality rate is relatively low. Notwithstanding the complicated climatologic conditions a steady population growth can be expected.