The Przewalski horse: reintroduction hazards (Part 12)

For thousands of years, Przewalski horses withstood a multitude of natural and anthropogenic hazards on the East Asian grasslands, but eventually died out under the combined pressure of environmental stressors of the 19th-20th centuries. Today, reintroduced Takhis are learning to cope with old and new hazards on their reintroduction sites. While some environmental stressors disappeared (military activitieshunting), others exacerbated (overgrazing, land degradation, desertification) and new ones emerged (e.g. road erosion, mining). Reintroduced individuals bear on their shoulders the long term survival of the species, but their relatively low numbers still make them particularly vulnerable to such threats.

Livestock overload and overgrazing

Flag of the Mongolian People's Republic

Flag of the Mongolian People’s Republic

Takhis died out under communism in the Mongolian People’s Republic in 1969 and were brought back to their native land at a time of transition to a free-market economy in the early 1990’s. Until the 20th century, the Mongolian steppe, which covers 80% of the country’s land area[1], had always been exploited by herdsmen through transhumant pastoralism, the most adequate way of using the land under the ruthless regional climate. Collectivization never suppressed this effective traditional system, but herders’ mobility on the steppes became tightly controlled from 1950[2]. As ancient pastoral customs were replaced by statutory regulations and state support increased in the form of subsidies and supplies to compensate the loss of mobility (winter forage, consumer good, transport, risk management and marketing services, etc.), nomads progressively 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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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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