The EU takes a step forward to prevent vulture intoxication by diclofenac

Diclofenac is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug that has been widely used worldwide to treat both humans and animals since first developed by Ciba-Geigy, now Novartis, in 1973. Trade names include Voltaren, Cataflam, Acoflam and many others. Concerns regarding the safety of such products for European vultures and other carrion-eaters like the golden eagle and the rare Spanish imperial eagle were raised earlier this year by a coalition of nature protection organizations led by the Vulture Conservation Foundation. The EU Commission subsequently initiated a referral procedure pursuant to article 35 of Directive 2001/82/EC on veterinary medicinal products to screen the drug for its possible impact on the scavengers.

The assessment, performed by the European Medicines Agency (EMA), concluded that the veterinary use of diclofenac in livestock animals poses a risk to European vultures and other necrophageous bird species. By acknowledging such a risk despite the lack of evidence “that a vulture in the European Union has been exposed or died as a result of feeding on carcasses from food-producing animals treated with diclofenac”, the EMA adopts a preventive approach and reasons by analogy with cases of intoxication seen in non-European countries to fill this “major data gap.”

European vultures

A group of European vultures: Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus), Cinereous vulture (Aegypius monachus), Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus). Author: Richard Lydekker (1849-1915). This image is in the public domain.

The direct connection between diclofenac ingestion and vulture mortality is indeed well established. Continue reading

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 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

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

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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