Gobi B Takhi Project
To re-establish Przewalski’s horses in Mongolia 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).
The unique history of the Przewalski horse and its role as wild ancestor of all horses has placed it as a priority species in the world-zoo-community. 20 Zoos are engaged in a successful project to reintroduce the species into its original habitat in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia. Under the project, which is coordinated by Langenberg Wildlife Park near Zürich, Switzerland, already 89 "takhis" were brought back to Mongolia, adapted to their new environment and released to the wild. By July 2005 there were about 100 horses in seven groups in Takhin Tal. Another group was released at Takhi Us in the western part of the Gobi B in spring 2005, where they obviously are thrving. Some of the Takhis are kept in fenced areas, others are completely free and their movements and spatial distribution are monitored with satellite telemetry. It is expected that, altogether, about 30 foals will be born in 2006.
The reintroduction project includes continuous scientific research. Research projects focus mainly on behavioural aspects, mortality, endocrinology, food ecology and parasitology. Special attention is also given to integrating the reintroduction project with sustainable local livelihood.
In 2005 a National Park House to accommodate administration and researchers was built and officially opened in October.
WAZA Conservation Project 03002 is operated by the International Takhi Group: Logistics coordinated by Langenberg Wildlife Park (Switzerland). Research coordinated and supervised by the Research Institute of Wildlife Ecology at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna (Austria). Animals and other support are provided by the following zoos: Dubbo (Australia), Vienna and Salzburg (Austria), Prague (Czech Republic), Berlin-Tierpark, Berlin Zoo, Chemnitz, Halle, Karlsruhe, Nuremberg, Rostock, Schwerin, Springe, Stuttgart (Germany), Winterthur (Switzerland), Rotterdam (The Netherlands), Marwell, Whipsnade (United Kingdom), by the ex situ breeding stations at Askanja Nova (Russia) and Oberwil (Switzerland) as well as by the Austrian Zoo Association (OZO), the Christian Oswald Foundation, the Werner Stamm Foundation, and the Austrian Ministry of the Environment.
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