The Przewalski horse: overview of reintroduction initiatives (Part 11)

The idea of reintroducing Przewalski horses in the wild in East Asia, their last known historic range, materialized in the late 1970’s and the first release of horses took place in the early 1990’s. As of today, reintroduction was achieved in two out of three and one out of three Mongolian and Chinese proposed sites, respectively.

Hustai National Park Logo

Hustai National Park‘s symbolic logo representing Takhis

Inge and Jan Bouman, together with Mongolian scientist Tserendeleg Jachin, were the pioneers of Takhi reintroduction. They created the Foundation for the Preservation and Protection of the Przewalski Horse[1] in Rotterdam in 1977 and launched the Khustain Nuruu Project. It took over a decade to enhance the genetics of Takhis, which had become largely inbred in captivity. In 1991, the Mongolian government established Hustai National Park for the purpose of Takhi reintroduction; it was then approved UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2002. Situated 100 km south-west of Ulaanbataar, the 50,000 ha area (excluding buffer zones and transition areas) was chosen for the quality and abundance of its wildlife. The horses enrolled in the project were bred in Holland and kept in semi-wild reserves where they could freely interact and form social bonds before being flown to Mongolia. Between 1992 and 2000, 84 Takhis aged 3-5 landed at Hustai and the first individuals were released into the wild in the summer of 1994.

Przewalski Horses in the wild at Hustai National Park

Przewalski Horses in the wild at Hustai National Park / Credit: Kelsey Rideout

Nowadays, some 300 horses divided in 30 harems inhabit the park[2]. The objective is to reach a population of 350, which would ensure the sustainability of the species and remains within the carrying capacity of the park—“200 free roaming Takhi take up 47% of the Park’s terrain, but only a much smaller percentage is intensively used by them”[3]. Rangers are responsible for reporting daily on “[the horses] whereabouts, activities and interaction with other groups and other animal wildlife”[4] and each individual is monthly checked by a biologist. The data collected reflect the horses’ behavior, habits, and how bands make use of their habitat year round; it is an important tool for population management. Since 2003, the NGO Hustai National Park Trust has been commissioned with the park’s operation[5]. Financially, the park relies on donations and profits from tourism, a key sector to the long term success of the project with over 9,000 international visitors in 2013[6].

The Takhin Tal Project was initiated by German businessman Christian Oswald and the Stamm family with the support of international sponsors and the cooperation of the Mongolian Society for the Conservation of Rare Animals (MSCRA), a branch of the Ministry of Environment. Since 1999, the International Takhi-Group (ITG)[7], a trust involving zoos, researchers, volunteers and various interest groups, has been responsible for funding and coordinating the project in concert with the local stakeholders. The chosen location is the Great Gobi Strictly Protected Area, one of the largest biosphere reserves in the world with its impressive 5,300,000 ha and the main desert zone of Central Asia. Protected since 1975, it was classified UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1990.

Takhi being released in the acclimatisation zone of the Great Gobi B, July 2014.

Takhi from the Prague Zoo being released in the acclimatisation zone of the Great Gobi B in July 2014 / Credit: N/A – Source: Mongolian Newspaper Shuud

Takhi reintroduction took place in the Great Gobi B, the smaller of the two clusters of the protected area, which alone stretches over 892,730 ha―discussions to more than double its size are ongoing[8]. In 1992, 2004 and 2012, 89 horses from Europe, Ukraine (Askania Nova reserve) and Mongolia were transported to the site of Takhin Tal, on the northeast edge of the Great Gobi B, and the first release took place in 1997. Due to past calamities in the region, there were only 89 free ranging Takhis[9] by the end of 2013, but the population is growing again. Three Przewalski mares from the Prague Zoo have rejoined the project in July 2014 and at least 22 foals were born this spring [updated: July 2014]. 300 individuals should ensure a sustainable population. Monitoring through GPS-equipped neck collars since 2002 has proven efficient to map the horses’ behavior and habits on their vast territory.

Origin of the Przewalski horses bred at the French site Le Villaret / Source: TAKH Association

The Khomiin Tal Project began in 1990 with the creation of the TAKH Association under the aegis of the WWF, the Parc National Les Cévennes, France, and the biological research centre La Tour du Vialat. Reintroduction will take place in Khomiin Tal, the buffer zone of Khar-Us Nuur National Park, a 850,000 ha wetland area situated in the Great Lakes Depression (Western Mongolia) established in 1997 under the impulse of the WWF[10]. The site entered the RAMSAR list of wetlands of international importance in 1999. Most Takhis enrolled in this project were bred in France at Le Villaret, a natural reserve situated on the Parc des Cévennes. In 2004-2005, 22 individuals from Le Villaret and 4 from the Prague Zoo were flown to Mongolia where they have been kept ever since in a 25,000 ha enclosure[11]. The population currently counts 59 horses[12] but local hazards are important in the area and must be minimized prior to release into the wild.

Przewalski horses were also reintroduced at the Kalamaili Ungulate Nature Reserve (KUNR) situated in Xinjiang, China. Protected since 1982, this immense area of 1,700,000 ha lies at the heart of the Dzungarian Basin. The climate is arid, resembling that of the Great Gobi B, and semi-desert vegetation predominates. The Takhis enrolled in the project were bred at the Wild Horse Breeding Center in Jimsar (near Urumqi, see map below) from an initial population of 18 horses sent by American and European zoos between 1985-1991[13]. The first release of 27 horses in 2001 failed for various reasons[14]: the horses could not cope with the aridity because their acclimatisation enclosure, which was situated too far from the reintroduction site, did not reflect KUNR’s climate and environment; a few Takhis joined domestic horse herds as nomads crossed through the region; and stallions could not efficiently protect excessively large harems. The horses were recaptured, brought back to Jimsar and subsequently turned loose again, more precautiously this time. There were 70 free-roaming Takhis on the reserve at the end of 2010[15]. The Cologne Zoo (Germany), the Smithsonian Zoo (USA) and Princeton University have rejoined the project since 2004[16].

The Chinese have undertaken other reintroduction projects which appear to be on stand-by in the absence of any recent update[17]. The two proposed sites are both located in the Gansu province: (1) Gansu for which horses are bred at the Gansu National Breeding Centre, near Wuwei, since 1989, and (2) the Anxi Gobi Nature Reserve situated in Guazhou County (formerly Anxi County), for which horses are bred at the Biodiversity Centre in Beijing. The initial stock originated from Europe and America.

Takhi Reintroduction Sites (current & proposed)

Current and proposed Takhi reintroduction sites (click on the map to enlarge) / Blank source map available here

Przewalski horses that are not candidate for reintroduction reside in zoos or natural reserves which are too many to list in the present article, but more information can be found here.

Continue reading about the Przewalski horse: Part 1 I Part 2 I Part 3Part 4 I Part 5 I Part 6 I Part 7 I Part 8 I Part 9 I Part 10 I Part 12

Here is a short film published by the American Museum of Natural History discussing Takhi reintroduction programs in Mongolia, illustrated by the example of the Great Gobi B. 

REFERENCES – [1] In partnership with the Foundation Reserves for the Przewalski Horse (FRPH), the Mongolian Association for the Conservation of Nature and Environment (MACNE) and the Dutch Ministry of Development Aid (which donated a total of $10,000). [2] Tourism Development of Hustai National Park of Mongolia, D. Tserendeleg, for the 1st Asia Parks Congress, Sendai (Japan), November 2013. [3] The Takhi: already fifteen years back in Mongolia, 2008 Newsletter by the The Foundation for the Protection and Preservation of the Przewalski Horse. [4] Hustai National Park[5] Hustai National Park. [6] Tourism Development of Hustai National Park of Mongolia, D. Tserendeleg, for the 1st Asia Parks Congress, Sendai (Japan), November 2013. [7] ITG International Takhi-Group in charge of coordinating actions of different organizations for the different reintroduction projects. The ITG involves other trusts, zoos, researchers and volunteers from German, Swiss, Austria and Czech Republic in its organization. [8] ITG International Takhi-Group, Annual Report 2013[9] ITG International Takhi-Group. [10] Support to Khar Us Nuur National Park on the WWF website. [11] Przewalski’s horses on the track to reintroduction – various projects compared, W. Zimmermann, Zeitschrift des Kölner Zoo, 2005, 48 (4): 183-209. [12] International Takhi-Group. [13] W. Zimmermann, Przewalski’s horses on the track to reintroduction – various projects compared, Zeitschrift des Kölner Zoo, 2005, 48 (4): 183-209. [14] The Przewalski Horse Newsletter (2006) from the Foundation for the Preservation and Protection of the Przewalski Horse. [15] This number comes from the Wikipedia page of the Kalamaili Nature Reserve as I was unable to find any other, more accurate source. [16] W. Zimmermann, Przewalski’s horses on the track to reintroduction – various projects compared, Zeitschrift des Kölner Zoo, 2005, 48 (4): 183-209. [17] W. Zimmermann, Przewalski’s horses on the track to reintroduction – various projects compared, Zeitschrift des Kölner Zoo, 2005, 48 (4): 183-209.

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