How an Abu Dhabi fund is helping to conserve the world's last wild horse

The coronavirus pandemic caused deep cuts in tourist revenues that sustain the Przewalski’s horse, but help from the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund is at hand

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The coronavirus has extended its unwelcome influence to some unlikely locations, including the stirring, windswept steppe of Mongolia.

There, an organisation that conserves what is described as the world’s last truly wild horse has suffered the collapse of its main revenue source – tourism – because of the pandemic.

In 2019, more than than 18,000 foreign tourists visited the Hustai National Park to the west of the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaatar. Last year, 280 arrived.

Help is at hand in the form of a $13,000 (Dh47,742) grant from Abu Dhabi's Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund in its latest round of awards last month.

"We can cover at least three months' salary and some of the expenditure for the petrol, and buy a new motorcycle for one of our rangers

The Hustai National Park Trust, which manages the park’s conservation work, is one of dozens of organisations to have received a coronavirus-related grant from the fund.

“We can cover at least three months’ salary, some of the expenditure for petrol and buy a new motorcycle for one of our rangers,” said Dashpurev Tserendeleg, the trust’s director.

The Przewalski's horse was close to extinction in the 1970s because of competition with livestock, hunting and intrusion into their habitat.

But the park now hosts 400 individuals and Mongolia more than 500 - the most anywhere in the world.

Entrance fees, accommodation charges and other tourism income accounts for more than four-fifths of the revenue of the self-financing trust, so lockdowns hit its finances hard.

A survey by the Mohamed bin Zayed fund indicated that many other conservation organisations have been similarly affected.

A Przewalski's horse leaves its container after being released in Takhin Tal National Park, part of the Gobi B Strictly Protected Area, in south-west Mongolia, June 20, 2017. Picture taken June 20, 2017.   REUTERS/David W Cerny
A Przewalski's horse after being released in Takhin Tal National Park in south-west Mongolia in 2017. David W Cerny / Reuters

Last year, the fund contacted more than 300 grant recipients and found that more than two-thirds had been hit by the pandemic, with 57 per cent enduring financial difficulties and more than one-fifth planning to cut jobs.

As well as losing tourism revenue, grants from governments or zoos that support field conservation dried up, the fund says. Income has fallen when it was needed most.

Nicolas Heard, the fund’s head of fund management, said it was extremely important that there was Covid-related support.

“Threats, particularly poaching, bushmeat hunting and resource use have increased at a time when patrolling and monitoring was reduced,” Mr Heard said.

“The short-to-medium term threat to global wildlife is significant.”

The fund has now made two rounds of Covid relief grants to help groups conserving everything from frogs to iguanas to fish. The first round was awarded in December.

Other Covid-related grants awarded last month will help, for example, to conserve red colobus monkeys in Kibale National Park, Uganda; the Bornean orangutan in Indonesian Borneo; the Malabar waterlily in India, and the El Oro parakeet in Ecuador.

Since it was launched in 2009 with an initial endowment of $25 million (Dh91.82m), the fund has made 2,152 grants to conserve 1,402 species or subspecies. The maximum grant is typically $25,000.

Bornean orangutan. Courtesy Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund
A Bornean orangutan. Grants made by the fund contribute to their conservation. Courtesy Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund

At the Hustai National Park Trust, some tourism-related staff took 20 per cent salary cuts, and there have been financial reserves to draw on, but the organisation faces continued pressures, with visitor numbers highly unlikely to return to pre-pandemic levels this year.

The numbers of domestic and foreign tourists coming to the park, building healthily every year over the past decade, fell from 31,189 to 7,291.

The horses – named after Russian explorer Col Nikolai Przewalski – have a large head, thick neck with a distinctive mane. They have never been domesticated.

It is seen as crucial that rangers should continue their work as normal because they are helping numbers of Przewalski’s horse, reintroduced to the area in 1992, to keep growing.

There are now more than 400 in the park, up from less than 100 during the 1990s.

Mongolia hosts two other populations of the species, which are now also present in China, Russia, Kazakhstan and Hungary.

In the park, the animals face competition for forage by grazing cattle and domestic horses, which also create a risk of interbreeding.

Also, in the spring people come into the park to collect red deer antlers that can be sold, an illegal activity that increases the risk that campfires may start fires that devastate forest or steppe areas.

During the peak foaling months of May and June, rangers check on the horses every morning and evening, which should increase the number of young that survive.

Rangers also move livestock out of the park and collect data that should be useful for conservation work. As a result of the efforts of the park and others in Mongolia, the International Union for Conservation of Nature changed its listing from "extinct in the wild" to "critically endangered" in 2008 and then to "endangered" in 2011.

“The main outcome of this grant is that we can continue our daily protection and research activities for a certain period without financial problems,” Mr Tserendeleg said.

“It means there will be no delays and [interruptions to] our continued effort to save Przewalski’s horse. Continuing our activity is very important for this endangered species.”

Looking to the long term, Mr Heard said the pandemic had highlighted the extent to which hands-on conservation in poorer nations that are rich in biodiversity is dependent on foreign support.

“Funding models based on international travel may not be as feasible as previously thought, and [there is] the potential to lose conservation capacity that has not even had a chance to start,” he said.

As an example, he suggested that young people interested in conservation may not be able to find funding and end up in non-conservation jobs.

Meanwhile, Mr Tserendeleg is now looking ahead to a time when greater numbers of tourists can return and the trust’s finances can regain a stable footing.

“At the moment we only hope,” he said. “At the moment, the government is saying on June 1 we open our borders … We’re ready to receive the tourists. Hopefully, it will be much better than last year.”

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