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Letter from Mongolia

Wednesday, 2 May 2018  
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VetScript pick - May 2018

Veterinary nurse Katey Freeman recounts the trip of a lifetime, helping with efforts to save the wild Przewalski horses of Mongolia.


Having fancied Mongolia for a few years and envisaging miles of uninhabited scenery and amazing wildlife, I enlisted with an organisation that arranges eco-volunteer work placements and arranged to go for two months. I was going to help monitor the Przewalski horses in Hustai National Park, where they have been successfully reintroduced after being declared extinct in the wild in the 1960s.

Flying into Mongolia was no disappointment. The steppe stretched as far as I could see in every direction, dotted with tiny white ger (yurts). In contrast, Ulaanbaatar, the capital city, turned out to be large and sprawling, with multi-storey apartments – not what I was expecting at all. Apparently, many Mongolians have given up the nomadic life, and now more than half of the population live in Ulaanbaatar. I loved seeing the architecture of such a young city, with its obvious Russian and Chinese influences. I was shocked to see an Irish pub, though!

On the city outskirts, domestic cattle, horses, sheep and goats all ranged freely beside, and sometimes on, the roads. This is at their peril, as Mongolian drivers never slow for stock. Beyond the city limits, vultures and eagles sat idly, and large Mongolian herding dogs guarded goats and sheep.

Hustai National Park is 100 kilometres west of Ulaanbaatar. I’d been told that I'd be staying at a small research centre, so I was horrified to find myself booked into a huge tourist resort. My ger was beautiful, though, a cosy and colourful retreat from the frenzy of tourists outside.

The following day I was joined by another eco-volunteer, to our mutual surprise – we’d both thought we were the only volunteers there. A couple of days later we met three more volunteers who’d been there for a week. No-one had bothered to introduce us. Soon enough, we were all fully engaged in monitoring the horses.

The restoration of the Przewalski horses to their natural habitat owes everything to a Dutchman. A longtime horse enthusiast, Jan Bouman encountered the last surviving Przewalski horses at the Prague Zoo in 1972. Dismayed at seeing these wild creatures in small enclosures, he launched a decades-long effort to return them to their wilderness home.

By 1975 a studbook had been created of every known living and deceased Przewalski horse, including details of each horse’s date of birth, place of residence (including enclosure size and zoo breeding policy), health, medical history, fertility and mortality. The amount of inbreeding meant the remaining horses were at risk, and the studbook allowed genetically distant animals to be bred successfully.

In 1977 Bouman and a group of dedicated scientists established the Foundation for the Preservation and Protection of the Przewalski Horse. During the next years, the foundation established large nature parks in the Netherlands, Germany and Ukraine for newly bred, unrelated horses.

In 1990 Hustain Nuruu (now known as Hustai National Park) in Mongolia was identified as the perfect location for Przewalski horse reintroduction. Two years later the first shipment of 12 mares and three stallions arrived, and that pattern continued every other year until 2000. Now the Przewalski horse is re-established in Mongolia as a healthy, self-sustaining population.

As eco-volunteers, we went out each day to monitor the ‘Takhi’ (the Mongolian name for the Przewalski horses) from 6am to 10.30am, gathering information about characteristics of the environment where the horses were found (GPS location, terrain, windspeed, temperature, and whether they were in the forest, mountain or plains steppe) and their activities. When we returned to camp, all of this data was loaded for the researchers to use. I loved monitoring the horses – and, if anything, I was disappointed at the small amount of time we were able to work.

Still, there were compensations, such as sightseeing. Like much of Mongolia, the roads in the park are dirt and very bumpy. Flying down these byways in a Russian minivan, lurching over potholes and coming precariously close to overturning, all while listening to traditional Mongolian music blaring from the speakers, was awesome. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

The first weekend I was there, all the eco-volunteers were taken to a sheep party with a local nomadic community. We watched them (and got the chance to help them with) beating sheep wool for the felt-making process, as well as horse hair ropemaking, traditional embroidery and knucklebones (played with real bones). They also held a ‘prettiest sheep’ competition after a traditional barbecue. My sheep was the first to be eliminated, so I obviously have a lot to learn about judging sheep.

Touring the park, we visited an Ungot grave site, a sacred deerstone, sand dunes and the Tuul river. But the wildlife was the highlight for me. During my visit, I saw marmots, ground squirrels, pikas, gerbils, venomous vipers and harmless ratsnakes, huge locusts, grasshoppers and dazzling butterflies. And the birds: eagles and buzzards, hawks, falcons and vultures, gliding effortlessly on thermal air currents or swooping down to grab prey from the steppe, storks, cranes, woodpeckers, ducks and geese, an incredible avian variety. Every day was a spectacle, and I loved every second of it.

And, of course, there were the Przewalski horses, the stallions a deep rich colour, the foals almost completely white. To see an animal that has been successfully reintroduced to its native habitat is a humbling experience.

We also toured Ulaanbaatar, and visited the Museum of Mongolia, as well as the city’s oldest monastery and a monument to the Russian soldiers who helped Mongolia defeat the Chinese. From the monument, you can see across the whole city.

And everywhere we went, we ate. Traditional Mongolian cuisine is divine. I received a lot of advice on the perils of eating it, advice I chose to ignore. I tried traditional yoghurt, fermented milk dried into sheets, boiled milk with mutton fat, milk tea, airag (mare’s milk vodka), barbecued mutton and goat, dumplings, small pasties and cheeses so hard I had to suck them. During the eight weeks, I never had a single stomach upset.

Finally, on the Friday before leaving, I got to stay with a nomadic family overnight. The highlight there was milking the cows – turns out I'm pretty good at it!

Mongolia is a stunningly beautiful country, rich in culture, with kind and generous people. If you want the experience of a lifetime, go there.