Horses and nomads in Mongolia
This is a brief report of my recent trip to Mongolia. I had never been to the country before, partly because there are no monkeys or apes. However, it might be a valuable endeavor for understanding primate evolution in comparison to other mammals. For a few years, my colleagues and I have also been focusing on wild horses (Matsuzawa 2017).
The area of Mongolia is about four times larger than that of Japan. It corresponds to the total area of Germany, France, Spain, and Portugal in Europe. The latitude is also similar: the latitude of the capital Uraanbaatar is approximately that of Paris. However, the population of Mongolia is only about 3 million, about 2.5% of that of Japan.
The primary purpose of my journey was to see Takhi in the wild. Takhi is the Mongolian name of Przewalski’s horse (Equus przewalskii). In 1969, the last evidence of Takhi in the wild was recorded in the Gobi Desert. No new observations of wild Takhi have been recorded in the last 50 years. The species is considered to have become extinct in the wild.
However, many Takhi had been captured and sent to zoos in Europe and North America since the species was discovered and reported to the Western world in the 19th century (Boyd and Houpt 1990). A reintroduction trial started in 1992. It is a program initiated by Jan and Inge Bouman from the Netherlands, with the collaboration of Mongolian government (Wit and Bouman 2006). The horses were brought to Hustai National Park, about 100 km west-southwest of the capital. The area of the park is about 500 km2.
The first of 16 horses were reintroduced in 1992. That event was followed by four more reintroductions every 2 years, the last one being in 2000. The total of 84 Takhi have been imported to Hustai. Wit and Bouman (2006) reported that 237 foals were born and the total number of horses in Hustai had reached 159 by the end of 2004, and that 75% of the horses were wild-born at that point. According to the most recent record of June 16th, 2019, kept by national park guards, there were 34 groups, totaling 261 horses. The group size including foals varies from a minimum of two to a maximum of 17, with an average of 7.7. In addition to the Azarga horses of the one-male unit groups, there are 95 adult male horses who move around alone or form bachelor groups. Thus, the total number of Takhi in the Hustai National Park is 356. According to statistics of the National Park, 25% of the foals were eaten by wild Mongolian wolves (Canis lupus chanco).
The Hustai was rich in birds, too. There were many kinds of large birds, such as black storks (Ciconia nigra), Demoiselle cranes (Anthropoides virgo), and black-eared kites (Milvuus lineatus). I saw a flock of seven black vultures (Aegypius monachus) and two Himalayan vultures (Gyps himalayensis) starting to eat the dead body of a marmot. So far, 208 species of vertebrates have been recorded in Hustai National Park. These include 15 species of fish, two amphibians, three reptiles, 148 birds, and 43 mammals (Wit and Bouman 2006). The rich fauna of Hustai reminds me of the importance of understanding the whole ecosystem that provides the basis for the survival of wild Takhi.
From Hustai, my colleagues and I moved to Kharhorin. Once called Karakorum, it was the base of Chinggis Khaan (Genghis Khan, born Temüjin, 1162–1227). He was the founder of the Mongol Empire, uniting many of the nomadic tribes of Northeast Asia. He also launched the Mongolian invasions that conquered most of Eurasia.
We moved on to the west and spent 4 nights and 5 days in a place near Khotont in Arkhangai prefecture, in the central part of Mongolia. “Ar” means “north” and “Khangai” means “the mountain forest rich in the water” in Mongolian language. We stayed in a ger, a Mongolian portable house, owned by a nomad named Mr. Enkhbat. He kindly offered a ger for five of us. In that last week of July, the maximum temperature was 23 °C and the minimum was 13 °C. The temperature remains below zero all day long in the winter season.
The meals always contained milk products. Nomads turn milk into cream, yogurt, and cheese. Pounding milk a thousand times makes alcohol: cow milk alcohol and horse milk alcohol, which can be made clear and stronger by distilling them.
In my understanding, there was only one fundamental and critical difference between captivity and the wild—that is Agt, the castrated male horse. In the wild, in my understanding, Azarga may chase young males out of the natal group when the latter are approaching sexual maturity. However, in captivity, the nomads castrate young males of 3–4 years of age, reducing the likelihood of aggression. Thus, the Agt can continue to stay in the natal group. Nomads use some of the castrated males for horse riding.
The Family Hominidae consists of four genera; human, chimpanzee, gorilla, and orangutan. Horses (Equus ferus caballus) belong to the Family Equidae, which contains the single genus Equus. The genus Equus includes horses, zebras, and donkeys. My colleagues and I targeted horses for study in 2014 (Matsuzawa 2017; Tomonaga et al. 2015; Ringhofer et al. 2017), leading to field studies in Portugal, Spain, Japan, and now Mongolia. We have been clarifying the social structure of Garanos horses in Serra d’Arga, northern Portugal, by using drones and direct observations of individually identified horses (Inoue et al. 2019; Mendonça et al. 2019).
The one-male unit of horses reminds me of the social structure of wild gorillas. I have visited the two ecotourism sites of the mountain gorillas, in Virunga volcanoes in Rwanda and Bwindi in Uganda. Gorillas and horses look similar in some respects. For example, both have a large body size and live on grasses, sedges, or herbs. The social group resembles a family group that consists of one adult male and several females and offspring. The Azarga of horses is the silverback of gorillas.
However, closer observation reveals a critical difference between Azarga and Silverback. Juichi Yamagiwa, the gorilla expert, used to describe silverback behavior as stable, like a rock. The silverback is found in the center and surrounded by the other members of the group, especially the young offspring. In contrast, Azarga almost always keeps a peripheral position in the group, moving around herding the females, keeping the group away from neighboring groups, and chasing away bachelors from the outside.
Further studies of horses may bring us new insights into the mammalian origins of primate society and social behavior. For me, the critical question is the existence of region-wide communities of multiple groups. Human society is characterized by such multi-level society: a family exists within the community, which in turn has neighboring communities. Such investigation of wild horses and other species may thus shed light on human evolution from the wider perspective of mammalian evolution.
This journey was fully arranged by Prof. Yuki Konagaya, National Museum of Ethnology, who is the expert on Ethnological studies of nomads in Mongolia. She has spent more than 40 years in various places in Mongolia. Without her guidance it would have been impossible to gain such knowledge on the horses and the nomads in Mongolia in such a short period. Dr. Ayumi Hotta, supervised by Prof. Konagaya, has been doing fieldwork in Arkhangai prefecture. She introduced us to the nomad, Mr. Enkhbat. The two scholars took the role of translating from Mongolian on site and giving lectures on the people and culture of Mongolia. The entire journey was undertaken by another two scholars, Prof. Eiji Hosoda from Chubu University, who majors in Environmental Economy, and Dr. Monamie Ringhofer from Kyoto University, who majors in Ethology of horses. I thank those people for giving me the precious experience in Mongolia. Thanks are due to Mr. Enkhbat and his family, relatives, and friends in Arkhangai. We stayed in the ger provided by him, and visited the gers of others to learn more about the everyday life of nomads. We also appreciate two drivers who took us to the remote places. I also thank my colleagues who are promoting Equinology with me: Masaki Tomonaga, Satoshi Hirata, Shinya Yamamoto, Monamie Ringhofer, Renata Mendonça, Sota Inoue, Tamao Maeda, Sakiho Ochi, Pandora Pinto, Carlos Pereira, Helena Freitas, Coby Bolger, Lucy Rees, and Enrique Alonso García. Financial support for this survey was given by MEXT grant for the specially promoted program 16H06283, JSPS leading graduate program of PWS (U04), JSPS core-to-core program for Comparative Cognitive Science Network, and Kyoto University Onsite Laboratory for Comparative Cognitive Science. Finally, I want to thank Prof. James Anderson for carefully reading the manuscript and editing English text.
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