Swiss help for a Mongolian treasure

...No country alone can guarantee the protection of its biodiversity. Real protection requires international conventions which set rules for protection and use of nature, which all countries agree to respect...


By Anita Fahrni, Swiss Program for Language Instruction and Teacher Training

Reinhard Schnidrig works for the Swiss government in the Ministry of Environment, Transport, Energy and Communication, where he heads the section on wild animals and forest biodiversity. A zoologist by training, he has many years of experience working internationally to establish agreements dealing with the protection of the environment. As president of the International Takhi Group he is involved in Mongolia’s reintroduction of the wild horse
in Great Gobi B Strictly Protected Area (SPA).

Mr. Schnidrig, you work for the Swiss Federal Government in wildlife management and biodiversity in forests. Can you tell us exactly what your work involves?

I am responsible for the implementation of laws involving the protection of wild animals and their environment, as well as the sustainable use of their population. This includes monitoring the hunting in our country. In addition, I head the national program for the establishment of forest preserves.

You are also active in international conservation organizations, speaking frequently at conferences. What do these organizations do and why is that networking important?

As you know, wild animals do not keep within national boundaries. Especially larger mammals and birds wander over large distances, thereby crossing from one country to another. Therefore, no country alone can guarantee the protection of its biodiversity. Real protection requires international conventions which set rules for protection and use of nature, which all countries agree to respect.

Switzerland has always been a pioneer in the development of international agreements for the protection of nature. One example of my country’s efforts is the Bernese Convention for the Protection of European Species and Habitats. Another is the Ramsar Convention for the Protection of Water Birds and Wetlands. Switzerland is also co-founder of international networks of experts and conservationists, for example, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

In the framework of my job for the federal government, I represent Switzerland in several of these groups.

In the international protection of birds Switzerland provides special support to African countries. In the protection of mammals we support Central Asian countries, including Mongolia. This is not your first trip to Mongolia. When and why did you become involved in work here, more specifically in connection with the International Takhi Group (ITG)? I am visiting and traveling in this spectacularly beautiful country for the fifth time. Even as a child I was fascinated by horses, and on my many trips to distant countries the nomadic culture has always had a special appeal for me. Thus, as a land of horses and nomads, Mongolia is the perfect destination for me.

During my university training as a zoologist, I studied in particular the social behavior of wild equids, especially of Takhis and of the African wild ass. At home, in Switzerland, I have two horses.

Two years ago I was elected president of the International Takhi Group.

The ITG has reintroduced the Takhi to Great Gobi B SPA. Everyone in Ulaanbaatar knows about Khustain Nuruu National Park, as it is close to the capital. How is Takhintal different? Why should one visit?

Takhintal is far away from cities, south of the Mongolian Altai mountains, on the edge of the Dzungarian Gobi. In that region the Mongolian wild horse, the Takhi, the principal form of the domestic horse, survived the longest. The last wild horses were observed in Takhintal as late as 1968. The name says it all. Even though Great Gobi B National Park SPA is difficult to get to, on arrival, one is rewarded with a truly wild scenery of magnificent mountains and steppes, barely touched by man. Unlike some other SPAs, Great Gobi B is still very strictly protected and wonderful to experience.

The first Takhis to be reintroduced to Takhintal arrived in 1992. Since then almost a dozen transports have been made. The transportation of wild horses, not used to handling by humans, is a complex undertaking.

Even after decades of breeding in European zoos, the Takhi have remained wild animals. They don’t allow themselves to be haltered or loaded into crates. A great deal of experience is needed to coax these animals into narrow crates in which they can hardly move. This tightness is necessary to avoid injury on the long trip by plane and truck. To do this transport successfully takes people who understand horses. Until now, we have transported 100 Takhis from Europe and have never lost one during transport.

There are now over 170 Takhi in Takhintal. Around 40 foals were born this year. Is it still necessary to increase that number?

Programs which reintroduce animals are long-term undertakings. Setbacks are always possible, as we experienced in the hard winter of 2009-2010, when the dzud reduced the Takhi population from about 150 to about 70 horses. Once the structures necessary for the transport of wild horses from Europe to Mongolia have been built up, they should not be dismantled irresponsibly, before the resettled population has reached the size necessary for independent survival.

Actually, if one takes into consideration only the number of foals born, we will soon be at the level at which no more transfers will be necessary. However, the simple number of animals is not the only basis for a stop of the transport. It takes in additional analysis of the genetic diversity of those animals in the wild which really do reproduce. We want to begin such a study soon. And, finally, the Dzungarian Gobi has space enough for many hundred, even thousands of wild horses. There can hardly be too many!

The ranger camp in Takhintal is an ideal place to visit for several days, to relax and enjoy the magnificent Gobi, its flowers, mountains, majestic views, and, of course, to see the truly wild horses roaming completely free in the habitat that was theirs many years ago. Is that also your impression?

Oh, yes! Whoever loves archaic nature, formed by dryness and cold winters, and whoever can live without the comforts of the city will be happy in Takhintal. The mountains and steppes of southwestern Mongolia have so much more to offer than just the Takhi. Khulans and gazelles gallop over the plains. If one is lucky, in the mountains one can meet argali sheep and snow leopards. Both the flora and the birdlife in the steppes are varied and rich. Especially exciting is watching the animals at the watering holes, as life collects where there is water.

You have come to Mongolia on a working visit. Can you tell us the purpose of your stay?

The International Takhi Group works very closely with the national institutions of the Mongolian government. In addition, we have here in UB an ITG office, and finance much of the work of the park management of the Great Gobi B SPA. Therefore, we visit our friends and colleagues in the capital and, of course, out in Takhintal. After so many years of collaboration with the rangers, our relationship with them and their families is one of friendship.

And on this trip my colleague from the ITG board and I will visit Gobi A SPA and meet the park management and the rangers there. I am sure that we can learn from each others experience.

Do you involve the local people in the region of Takhintal? How do they respond to the project.

Oh, yes. Our relationship with the nomads and the soums in the region is excellent. From the very beginning we recruited rangers from the local population. There is now a small settlement of rangers and their families at the camp. The ITG has financed a school bus so that the children can attend school in the nearby soum. ITG also gave the school a new heating system. We support the towns whenever possible in the field of education, for medical care or with material for the local conservation office.

The work in Takhintal is financed largely by members of the International Takhi Group and Friends of the Takhi, Switzerland. Little support has come from Mongolians. Why is that and how can the situation be changed?

Let us be honest, projects like this cost a lot of money. Now the Takhintal project is financed largely by the ITG and by donations from nature enthusiasts from Europe. In order for the work to be sustainable, that can only be the beginning. The goal of ITG is – and must be – to put the entire project in the hands of Mongolia and Mongolians.

Today, Ulaanbaatar is a large international city, where, as in many other places, wealth is accumulating. We believe strongly that as time passes we will find here in Mongolia more and more people willing to support this work. In order to find these people we must talk about our project and the good stories behind it, for example, in an interview like this one, for which we want to thank you.

There will be a photography exhibit at Blue Moon Gallery in mid-April next year, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the reintroduction of the Takhi in Takhintal.

Yes, beautiful pictures of wild horses in their original home are pure emotion and directly touch people’s hearts. That is why we will organize similar activities. Twice each year the ITG publishes a newsletter, the Takhi Post, for the Friends of the Takhi in Europe. The latest issue was translated into Mongolian and distributed here in Mongolia. We would like to call your attention, and that of your readers, to our Mongolian website

How can people here become involved in this project?

The ITG has an office here in Ulaanbaatar and has founded an organization for those interested in supporting our work. The group is called Friends of the Takhi, Mongolia. Members will receive the Takhi Post and invitations to whatever events are planned. Enkhsaikhan Namtar at the ITG office would welcome new members, and can be reached at [email protected]

The Great Gobi B SPA borders on China.Do you also have contact with the Chinese neighbors?

Last fall a biologist from the ITG and I traveled to Xinjiang and to the Khalameili Reserve. We spoke with the forestry department there about the possibility of a partnership, as they have a breeding station and plan to reintroduce the Takhi to the Khalameili Nature Reserve. They need new stallions. ITG will try to use its network to make such a transport possible. The possibility of Great Gobi B receiving young mares from Jimsar is also being looked at. Our dream for the future is of a protected area reaching across the borders, providing a corridor for wildlife and closer relationships between the people of the two countries.