Mongolian Winter

Director´s view

Miroslav Bobek  |  14. 01. 2017

The dry road was replaced by ice and the car window slowly began to frost over. A clear sign that, even by Mongolian standards, it was cold outside. Something around minus thirty. Despite that, from behind the wheel Ganbaatar, our Mongolian associate and Director of the Great Gobi B Strictly Protected Area, repeated that this winter was quite mild. It might be freezing, but there was only ten to fifteen centimetres of snow.

Photo: Miroslav Bobek, Prague Zoo Photo: Miroslav Bobek, Prague Zoo

I understood him very well. The bitter winter, known as dzud, which came in the winter of 2009-10, was the worst in the last 50 years and led to the death of 89 Przewalski’s horses in Gobi B. Almost two-thirds of the total number in this area. After many years of efforts to return the last wild horse to its natural environment, it was a disaster of colossal proportions.

As Ganbaatar drove us through frozen West Mongolia to Gobi B, I asked him about what happened. He told me about the snowfall, which started around Christmas and lasted until 8 January, and about the frosts, when the temperature even fell below minus forty degrees. He told me of how the foals were the first to die, followed by the nursing mares and in the end even strong adults. The Przewalski’s horses in the Gobi died of cold and hunger. The snow storm had coated them in snow, which melted and chilled them. They couldn’t get to the food under the snow. They got into drifts and couldn’t get out of the frozen snow... Ganbaatar told me how they spent ages and ages trying to get hold of hay for them and arrange transport. When he finally managed to do so, he could take on the dzud. A very personal fight. For five days and nights he sat behind the wheel of a military truck, loaded with five hundred bales of hay, he fought his way to his horses. And he got there.

Photo: Václav Šilha, Prague ZooPhoto: Václav Šilha, Prague Zoo

Eighty nine fallen Przewalski’s horses was a huge disaster – but were it not for Ganbaatar, it would probably have been far worse. It took a number of years to remedy this. Even with our contribution, it wasn’t until 2015 that the number of Przewalski’s horses in Gobi B was the same as before the dzud.

Ganbaatar and I are driving along the same route as the one he took all those years ago with five hundred bales of hay. In a single day inside the protected area we observed four Przewalski’s horse harems in the glittering snow. Each one of them had some of the mares that we had flown over from Prague. All of them had nicely rounded tummies. They should be giving birth to foals this spring or summer.

Photo: Miroslav Bobek, Prague ZooPhoto: Miroslav Bobek, Prague Zoo