By Lisa Carducci
"It has been raining for eight hours. The ground is like a sponge and the horses are filthy," warned Zhang Hefan over the phone. From Urumqi, one can reach the Wild Horse Research and Reproduction Centre of Jimsar, in Changji Hui Autonomous Prefecture, in an hour and a half. The young woman was waiting for me with the Centre's deputy director, Ma Dan, 39, a Kazak, as was most of the staff.
Zhang Hefan is 33. With her small frame, she looks like a little girl. She was born in Xinjiang Tacheng (Qoqen) to a mother from Henan Province and a father from Jiangsu, who met in Xinjiang in the 1960s. She is the second of four children, two girls and two boys, all born within five years. Her parents could not afford advanced education for all of the children. In addition, her father – from the age of 40 – suffered from an illness and could not work. Only Hefan and her youngest brother attended university. Now, her older sister has established herself in their mother's province where she owns a hair salon, and her two brothers are a driver and a policeman.
Lisa(L) and Zhang Hefan(R) [Foreign Languages Press]
Zhang chose to become a veterinarian because, when she was at the Xinjiang University of Agriculture, students were encouraged to choose a discipline "that would benefit Xinjiang." Also, Zhang Hefan had always loved animals and had raised dogs and cats as a child.
Once she graduated in July 1995, the 21-year-old arrived at the Wild Horse Research and Reproduction Centre, 140 km from Urumqi, where her family was then living. After an arduous journey just to get there, she noticed upon arrival that the Centre did not have electricity, and that there was no telephone, no television, no store in the immediate vicinity, and no fresh fruits and vegetables to be had in close proximity. All around her was the vast gobi desert. All that confronted her was an enormous horseshed and small earthen houses for the 15-member staff, of whom there was only one woman: Zhang. Faced with these rudimentary life and work conditions and without any communication with the outside world, she could only cry. Often, she was tempted to quit, she disclosed, but every time she prepared her letter of resignation, one of her "friends" needed her, such as a sick horse or a horse that had problems delivering a foal. She didn't have the heart to abandon them.
The Centre deals with preservation and reproduction of the Prjevalski (also Przewalski) horse. This name came from a Russian colonel who, in 1878, believed he had discovered this breed of horse although it had already occupied Hans Schiltberger's memories who, in 1427, lived in the Tianshan Mountains (after being a prisoner of the Turks who traded him for a Mongol prince) where he had an opportunity to carefully study the wild horses and meticulously write down his observations. The Equus caballus prejwalski is also called a Kertag horse, Mongol Tarpan, Taki (from Mongolian "Takh") or, simply, Asia wild horse. In the Lascaux Grottoes of France, and on the Altamira rock paintings in Spain, the existence of this horse was evident, and one can see how old this race is, protected intuitively in a sense by its natural hostility towards intruders, thus enabling its preservation. It was said that 60 million years ago, the wild horse was about as small as today’'s fox. Around the end of 20th century, the Prjevalski horse had been wiped out from the Asian grasslands by a "civilization" that ignored the rules of nature and science. When the Jimsar Centre opened in 1986, it imported 11 horses from England and East Germany to establish its livestock and, later, others from the United States and Russia – two countries where most of them can be found today. Zhang estimates their global number at 1,400, a little fewer than the number of pandas – 1,700. Both species are under the highest level of state protection.
Breeding wild horses is easy, said Zhang Hefan, but the first birth is often risky. "The survival rate is 98 percent in China, while abroad it is around 25 percent." Although I think I misunderstood her, Zhang confirmed that such a miracle is possible because the horse is in its original and natural environment.
Then comes the privileged moment: seeing the horses on terra firma. I observed the 49 males and notice a great resemblance to the wild donkey, with a stocky body, dun coat, short and dark mane, elongated head, large muzzle, thick neck, and powerful legs. Zhang agreed with my observations while constantly reminding me to stay in front of the horse. Even when the horse itself moved about, I had to stay in its line of vision. Otherwise it would immediately balk. Zhang had to do the same as I, even though she was their "friend."
A clan includes one stallion and five to 12 mares. When a mare becomes pregnant, it seeks a quiet place to give birth and then returns to the herd with its foal, which grows quickly. Moreover, the baby can stand 20 minutes after its birth, and, an hour later, is already solid on its legs. A female gives birth once a year after a one-year gestation. The birthing period is thus concentrated between April and July.
If a man or another male horse comes near one of the females, the stallion will lead the intruder away from the herd and the opponents will fight in a standing position, with their front hooves, or by balking and biting. However, if a human or a male horse comes too close to a foal, the mother is the one that will protect its offspring. I noticed scars – even large and deep ones – and holes in the horses' hides. "Those are battle wounds," Zhang explained. A horse may break a leg in a fight and even lose its life. When the colt or the filly reaches about two years of age, the father chases them from the clan and literally kicks them out if they don't obey at first. They are considered adults and have to establish a new family elsewhere. The mother doesn't interfere, as nature prevails.