The cranes of Bayreuth

white-naped crane (Grus or Antigone vipio) from the Tierpark Röhrensee, a mini-zoo situated in Bayreuth, Germany. The few cages and enclosures are distributed along the alleys of a small public park, on free display for its visitors.

I caught the birds in the middle of a preening session.

These birds are native of Eastern Asia (see range map including winter migrations below) where their conservation status Continue reading

The Przewalski horse: being wild in the wild (Part 10)

Reintroducing Takhis in East Asia is a long term process with a threefold objective: establish viable populations in parts of the horse’s historic range, restore degraded steppe ecosystems and foster socio-economic development, which in turn would guarantee the long term success of reintroduction.

When the first reintroduction program was launched in the late 1970’s, the Przewalski horses had been living in captivity for almost a century. To return to their native steppe, they first had to learn to be wild again. In addition to reducing genetic diversity, captivity had made the horses entirely dependent on men for their survival and inhibited their most basic instincts. In this context, reintroduction would be a marathon and a complex learning process for the horses.
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The Przewalski horse: walking on thin ice (Part 9)

“Twenty years ago a subspecies of wild horses, the Asian Przewalski horse, became extinct in the wild. There were still specimens in zoos but ten generations of inbreeding had weakened them and instead of infinite grasslands they knew only iron fences. The animals were merely a shadow of their former selves.”[1] It is with these words that Prince Bernhard of The Netherlands described the poor and seemingly hopeless condition of the species in the aftermath of its extirpation in the wild. Following this event, Przewalski horses experienced a dramatic population bottleneck. As the species survived through just a few captive individuals, the loss of founder genes became a terrible threat to their viability. Should they be saved, prompt action was required: breeding a healthy population through inter-zoo exchanges was a matter of urgency. From 1979, various conservation programs Continue reading

The Przewalski horse: an object of European curiosity from the 19th century (Part 5)

General Nikolai M. Przevalski

Russian Colonel Nikolai M. Przewalski. His name is sometimes ortographed “Przhevalsky” or “Prjewalski” / Source: The Long Riders’ Guild

In 1879, Colonel Nikolai M. Przewalski (1839-1888), a notorious Russian explorer and naturalist sent to Tibet by Tsar Alexander II of Russia, was presented with a Takhi hide and skull upon returning from his journey. Both animal parts were sent for examination to the Zoological Museum of the Academy of Science in St Petersburg where zoologist I. S. Poliakoff identified the Asian Wild Horse as a new species within the Equus genus and gave it its scientific name Equus ferus przewalskii in 1881[1]. Another notable report came from Grigory and Michael Grum-Grzhimailo, two Russian brothers who came upon Takhi bands in the Dzungarian Basin (Xinjiang) on their voyage across western China in 1889-1890. They shot a mare and three stallions whose hides and skulls together with an incomplete skeleton were again sent to St Petersburg. The hunters observed the equids closely and Continue reading

An Encounter With the Przewalski Horse at the Haus zur Wildnis (Part 1)

Przewalski horses

Przewalski horses grazing at the Haus zur Wildnis. Credit: Yalakom

A few Przewalski horses (Equus ferus przewalskii) live at the Haus zur Wildnis, a small nature park located in the town of Ludwigsthal, Germany, at the edge of the Bavarian Forest National Park (BFNP). The horses arrived in 2005 as part of an exchange program between the Münchener Tierpark Hellabrunn and the BFNP. Originally, five horses, including one stallion, were sent to the site: Borodin[1], Holly[2], Fiuma[3], Nadia[4], and Calgary C23[5]. Since then, the herd has grown and during my visit in October 2013, I had the chance to see a foal (possibly a yearling).

The site’s configuration allows one to get a close look at the horses and appreciate their distinctive features. The friendly horses came to me as I approached the enclosure and called them out. Borodin and a couple of mares eagerly passed their neck through the wire fence, seemingly pleased to be petted. Still shy and spooky, the foal nevertheless joined in, keeping at close distance from his mother and resolutely out of my reach despite obvious curiosity.

Przewalski Foal

Przewalski foal at the Haus zur Wildnis. Credit: Yalakom

As an equine enthusiast and equestrian, my encounter with the Przewalski horse left me with a stack of unanswered questions. My mistake had been not to inform myself about the “last wild horse”―as zoos’ taglines advertise it―before sighting living specimens. As I subsequently researched and read extensively about the equid, its story stroke me as one worthy of interest even to those unacquainted with horses because underlying is a tale about men and human-nature interactions, synergies and dependencies. Continue reading

Spotted at the Haus zur Wildnis

While on a recent trip at the Bavarian Forest National Park (BFNP) in southeastern Germany, I visited the Haus zur Wildnis (House of Wilderness)a small zoo situated directly in the forest that keeps lynxes, grey wolves, Przewalski horses and Auroch-type cattle.

Grey Wolf at the Haus zur Wildnis, Germany

Grey Wolf at the Haus zur Wildnis, Germany. Credit: Yalakom

I could spot five grey wolves (Canis lupus) out of 12. The animals are kept in a small 4,5 ha enclosure that appears larger only because the fence is concealed by a natural bush cover. To put things into perspective, in the wild wolf territories can reach hundreds of square kilometers, like in southern and central Europe where typical ranges are comprised between 82 and 243 sq km. Size varies substantially depending on prey density, vegetation type and other factors.

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The Haus zur Wildnis, a zoo in the forest

Erected at the edge of the Bavarian Forest National Park (BFNP) near the town of Ludwigsthal (Germany), the Haus zur Wildnis is a small zoo that keeps lynx, wolves, auroch-looking cattle, and Przewalski horses since 2006. Information about the BFNP, an organic restaurant and lockers are available inside the spacious visitors center, a good starting point for trips into the northern part of the forest known as Falkenstein-Rachel. The Haus zur Wildnis (house of wilderness) is described as a “Tier-Freigelände” and “naturnahe Tierhaltung”, so I imagined it was a reserve or a sanctuary where animals live in semi-wild conditions. In fact, predators are packed in small, fenced pockets of forest and wild horses and auroch-cows are kept in ordinary paddocks, much like farm animals. Not so wild.

I never enjoy observing wild animals confined in man-made habitats because all I see behind the bars is a sterile distortion of nature. It does not get any better when the zoo lies in the woods. The idea of bringing nature to men in a box, even a green one, is a fantasy. Through an illusion of proximity, zoos likely disconnect rather than sensitize visitors to the wilderness because the sightings are so artificial and stranger to the complex realities of nature. Adding patches of green here and there conceals this situation to ensure wider acceptance by the masses but rings as an apology rather than a favor to the animals. Growing up accepting the notion of wildlife captivity as the norm, it seems we already started off on the wrong foot.
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