HUSTAI NATIONAL PARK: Like all places above the dust and pollution of cities, the air in this high summer landscape in the heart of the Eurasian land mass has a wild thin quality.
Above green rolling hills dotted with huge stones marking the burial sites of ancient Neolithic shamans, high stratocumulus scud across an azure blue sky.
Underfoot are fields of yellow irises and green meadows where tiny cicadas call and occasionally whir through the air for a few seconds in mating flight.
Marmots stand on their hind legs to look around, scampering away and disappearing into their burrows when disturbed. Birds flit through the air, and high above, a single eagle glides in widening circles.
It is summer, the sun is out after days of unseasonal rain, and all around is life.
A distant snort of deep breath carried on the high cold wind that blows among these treeless hills breaks the silence. The wild horses are near. After 20 years, once again they roam the wild high steppes of Mongolia.
On June 6, Mongolia celebrated the 20th year anniversary of a project which saw the Przewalski’s horse – the only genuine wild horse left on the planet – reintroduced at two sites, bringing it back from the brink of extinction.
I had always wanted to see it in real life. With a name like that, and the fact that its home was the storied Mongolian steppes, who could resist?
It was apparently a Russian colonel with a keen interest in wildlife and natural history who followed up rumours 131 years ago and found the horse, which has been known after him ever since.
But by the time I read about it, it was the 1960s and it was already virtually extinct in the wild. Hunting for meat and 'sport' had triggered what the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) called a 'catastrophic decline.'
Until the late 18th century, Przewalski's horse had roamed from Germany eastwards into and across central Asia and northern China. By 1814 it had disappeared from most of this vast territory.
In 1969 groups were last seen in the Gobi desert, but even there, they could not escape the hand of man, and quickly disappeared. The IUCN listed it as extinct in the wild up until 1996, when one lonely mature male was sighted.
But there were captive individuals in Europe, and a remarkable project saw several reintroduced into two sites in Mongolia, their original home.
Last week, I visited one of them, Hustai National Park, about two hours from the capital, Ulaan Bataar.
Today there are about 275 in the 506 sq km park.
There are other tiny populations, one bizarrely in the Chernobyl exclusion zone in the Ukraine (where the Chernobyl nuclear reactor number 4 blew up in 1986).
The horses were introduced in 1998 and 1999 apparently to boost the biodiversity of the exclusion zone. But they are being killed for meat by poor locals.
Biologist Zbyszek Boratynski captured surreal footage of the dwindling herd among abandoned buildings in the zone in July 2011: http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/14277058
At Hustai National Park, we first performed a simple ceremony at a Tibetan Buddhist shrine of rocks and prayer flags. As marmots watched us anxiously from the surrounding rolling grassland, we each circled the shrine thrice clockwise and placed three stones upon it. The blue flag snapped in the high wind.
Soon after, we heard the horses in the distance, and then we came upon them, first a pair of mares and then another group some distance away, this time guarded by a stallion which was always behind the mares as they grazed.
His mane was erect in the typical manner of Przewalski’s horse, looking almost combed and cropped. Twice as I took photographs he turned to look directly at me, and once he took a few steps towards me and I backed away, even though he was 50m away.
Stallions guard their harems of mares closely. Wolves sometimes prey on the very young foals, the Rangers said. Studies have shown they more often prey on domestic horses outside the park, as well as red deer and marmots.
While the stallion guards the mares and keeps other stallions away, the mares keep close watch over the foals. They have no other predators in this protected area; they are too big, fast and strong for foxes and the Eurasian lynx. In winter they survive temperatures that plummet to minus 30 deg C.
In the evening, still under a bright sky until 8pm in the long northern summer, we had dinner at a research station with the local rangers and a former minster of environment, Mr Adiyasuren Tsokhio.
Smooth stones had been placed in a fire an hour previously.
By now they were white hot, and placed in a steel cannister along with meat and vegetables. The cannister was sealed for half an hour, and when opened, the meal was ready and we ate under a rising half moon which from that altitude of around 2000m looked closer and clearer in the thin air than one could ever see it from the plains.
As we headed out of the park to our accommodation for the night – in the round Mongolian ger at the gate – we passed the Tibetan shrine again. There on the ridge line was another group of Przewalski’s horses silhouetted against a darkening indigo sky.
Further reading : Przewalski’s horse in the IUCN Red List http://www.iucnredlist.org/apps/redlist/details/41763/0
Coming home: the return of Przewalski’s horse to the Gobi http://www.savethewildhorse.org/files/Downloads/PDF/Medien/WAZA_Walzer%20et%20al.%202010.pdf