The Altyn Emel Przewalski Horse Project
© Christian Walzer
To re-establish Przewalski’s horses in Kazakhstan by means of reintroduction
Fossil remnants, prehistoric wall paintings and other artefacts, testimonies by Roman naturalists, and medieval texts prove that wild horses once roamed all over Eurasia. Successively the range of the once abundant species - more than 40,000 animals having been killed at the paleolithic site of Solutré (near today's Mâcon, France) alone - has shrunk from west to east, favoured by climatic change but probably mainly due to human impact. In the Middle Ages, wild horses were still found in central Europe. In 1814, the last free-living specimen of the western subspecies, was killed by hunters in Poland. The European range was finally reduced to the lower Dnjepr area, and when the last of the steppe tarpans (Equus ferus gmelini) died in the 1870s the species had become extinct in the wild in Europe. In human care, the last European wild horse, a stallion captured in 1866 in the Khersons'ka steppe, died at Moscow Zoo around 1887.
In Asia, the species had become exterminated in most parts of its previous distribution by the second half of the 19th Century. It therefore caused a great sensation when the discoverer Nikolaj M. Przewalski reported the existence of wild horses - called "takhi" by the Mongols - in eastern Dzungaria. A specimen collected on Przewalski's second expedition, was scientifically described, in 1881, by the Russian naturalist Iwan S. Poljakoff and named Equus przewalskii. For some decades, the numbers of the Przewalski horses seem to have been fairly stable, but the population rapidly declined after the Second World War. Since 1967, no herds of wild takhis have been seen in their last retreat in the south-west of Mongolia, in spite of several expeditions sent out specifically to look for them. The last wild takhi, a single stallion, was sighted in 1969 near a spring called Gun Tamga.
After discovery by western science, several large landowners, mainly Baron Friedrich von Falz-Fein, who owned the estate of Askaniya Nova, and the first Duke of Bedford, had become interested in the wild horse and commissioned the businessman Assanow and the animal dealer Carl Hagenbeck respectively to capture some of these animals. In total, 53 Mongolian wild horses arrived in Europe between 1899 and 1902. Only a few more horses were caught between the 1930s and 1940s, most of which did not survive. The takhis purchased by Baron Falz-Fein produced 37 offspring. A few of these were given to western zoos, but the vast majority remained at Askanya Nova, where they all died during World War II. Also the stock of the zoos suffered badly from the effects of the war. Only 26 animals survived, and of these only 11 were reproductive. A 12th founder could be imported from the wild in 1947. The population contains also the genes of domestic horses. Such introgression occurred not only in human care but also already in the wild.
The Przewalski's horse has been of great importance to WAZA already in the early days when the association was still known as the International Union of Directors of Zoological Gardens. It was soon recognized that efforts had to be undertaken towards a more organized approach to ex situ breeding if the species should be saved from extinction and, in 1992, it was also proposed to IUCN to choose the Przewalski's horse as the first candidate for Global Heritage Species status.
In 1957 the collection of data for the International Studbook for the Przewalski's Horse was initiated. In 1959 the studbook, containing entries for all the 228 animals kept between 1899 and 1958, was published by Erna Mohr and officially approved by the IUDZG. Subsequently, updates were published annually by Prague Zoo.
Prague Zoo also organised the First International Symposium on the Preservation of the Przewalski's Horse in 1959 as a platform for discussing issues such as genetic management, inbreeding depression and hereditary disease, and there were several follow-up symposia since..
With a view to establishing coordinated conservation breeding programmes on a regional basis, American breeders met in 1979 to form a North American Breeders Group, which eventually became the American Zoo and Aquarium Association's Species Survival Plan (SSP) for the Przewalski's horse. In Europe, the Europäisches Erhaltungszuchtprogramm (EEP) was initiated by the then European Community Association of Zoos and Aquaria in 1985. A corresponding programme (ASMP) has been established by the Australasian Regional Association of Zoological Parks and Aquaria. Main objective of these programmes are to retain 95 % of the current average individual heterozygosity for at least 200 years and to provide animals for return to the wild projects. In 2004, the three programmes, which are coordinated by Cologne Zoo, Bronx Zoo and Australian Wildlife Park respectively, unified 94 participating institutions, and the total of animals registered by the International Studbook exceeded 1500.
As the population grew, projects were initiated to keep Przewalski's horses under semi-wild conditions, either for disposing of surplus males by creating bachelor herds, for preparing animals for the release to the wild in their original habitat, or for contributing to the management of nature reserves. These projects have proven that, in spite of past genetic bottle necks and living under zoo conditions for several generations, the horses are able to adjust to free-ranging conditions and develop functional social structures.
In 1985 the FAO/UNEP-Conference, held in Moscow decided that the reintroduction to the wild was an essential factor in the conservation of this species. Subsequently 17 different areas in Mongolia were examined as potential habitats of the takhi. At the beginning of the nineties two separate reintroduction projects were started in the two areas rated highest. The Hustai-Nuuru Project, funded largely by the Government of the Netherlands, implemented the creation of a National Park, into which takhis provided by the Dutch Foundation for the Preservation and Protection of the Przewalski Horse were also released. The project in the Dzungarian Gobi goes back to an initiative of the Mongolian Vice-President Maidar. In 1990, the Mongolian Government and the Christian Oswald Foundation of Germany initiated the project on the northern border of the Gobi B Strictly Protected Area. Two years later, the first Przewalski's horses arrived from Askania Nova, followed by some more animals from Australia. In 1995, the Swiss-based Werner Stamm Foundation joined the project. In 1996 the Wildpark Langenberg, Switzerland, was the first European zoo to cooperate, and it was followed by many other zoos and private persons. The International Takhi Group (ITG) was established in 1999 to continue and expand on the basis of the original project. Since the year 2000 the project is fully supported by the EAZA zoos participating in the EEP, sending not only horses on a regular basis, but also paying the transportation costs. From 1992 to 2004, 90 Przewalski's horses bred by 24 different institutions in 8 countries were returned to the Gobi B. With a view to promoting the project it received the WAZA brand in 2003 (Nr. 03002). Another release project has been initiated at the Altyn Emel Nationalpark of Kazachstan in partnership with Tierpark Hellabrunn of Munich and Almaty Zoo (WAZA Project 04002).
In former times, the Przewalski horse used to live in the region of Kazakhstan from the Syrt plains in the west to the Zaissan desert in the east.The Altyn Emel National Park covers an area of 460,000 hectares. It is situated in SE Kazakhstan about 150 km from Almaty and 160 km from the Chinese bor-der within the Dzhungarian mountain region. The territory of the park covers various types of landscape, ranging from desert and semi-desert to steppe and mountainous landscape. It is naturally isolated by high mountain ranges which prevents the immigration of feral horses and predators.
The Ily river valley offers an abundance of vegetation and water and is therefore a perfect re-introduction site for ungulates (the 32 kulans, Equus hemionus kulan, which were released in the park in 1982 have meanwhile increased to a population of some 600 individuals).Already in July 2003 the first consignment of 8 (4,4) Przewalski horses were brought from Munich to Altyn Emel. The horses were donated to the Government of Kazakhstan at an official ceremony in the presence of Zoo director Professor Dr. Henning Wiesner and baroness Edith von Welser-Ude, the spouse of Munich's Lord Mayor.
WAZA Conservation Project 04002 is operated by Tierpark Hellabrunn (Munich Zoo), in collaboration with the Nature Conservation Authorities of Kazakhstan and with the administrative support of Almaty Zoo.
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© Christian Walzer