Bringing the Mongolian wild horse back from extinction

Photo: CTK

Prague Zoo this week announced an important step in its effort to help reintroduce the critically endangered Mongolian wild horse to its natural habitat. Four specimens – one stallion and three mares – born and bred in the Czech Republic are to be transported to the Mongolian steppes to enrich the gene pool of a small protected herd that is to help the endangered breed survive. I met up with the zoo’s spokeswoman Jana Ptacinska Jiratova to find out more about the project and how Prague Zoo came to be involved in it.

Photo: CTK
“Prague Zoo has a long-term interest in these projects. Moreover Przewalski’s horses are connected with the history of Prague Zoo. The first Mongolian wild horses came to us in the 1930s so they have been part of our zoo for quite a long time and for quite some time we have been interested in helping to re-introduce this endangered species to its natural habitat. In the 60s they were quite rare in Mongolia. It happened that they were almost extinct and a number of zoos agreed on the necessity of preserving the species – to gradually renew the population living there. Since the 1980s we have participated in this effort, in international transports of these animals back to Mongolia but what is unique right now is that we are preparing our own, historically our first transport of this breed to its homeland.”

So what exactly is happening?

“In the course of June four of these horses –one stallion and three mares – are going to be transported to Mongolia. In order to bring this about we have requested help from the army and have been promised a CASA army plane which will transport out horses to their destination.”

It must be a very demanding project. How long are they going to be travelling for and what is involved?

CASA plane,  photo: Czech Army
“They will have to be in these boxes for a whole day. They will be transported from Dolni Dobrejov, where we have an acclimatization station and where we keep most of these horses, to the airport in Kbely in Prague and from there by plane to a Mongolian city located close to the reservation where they will be set free.”

How many of these horses do you have here at Prague Zoo currently?

“In the zoo itself we keep only four of the horses. Most of them are kept in our station in Dolny Dobrejov where we have around 20 Przewalski horses. We have eleven mares and eight stallions I believe.”

So all these horses were born in captivity?

“Yes, almost all the Przewalski horses you see in Europe right now were born in captivity. The horses that zoos have were brought out of Mongolia much earlier. Right now this is not happening – now they are being returned back to Mongolia where they came close to extinction.”

Photo: Archive of Prague Zoo
I believe that around 1945 there were only two zoos in the world which had Mongolian wild horses and that was in Prague and Munich –is that so?

“That is so, but now there are more stations where you can see these horses because of the international effort to save them. In France there are stations where they are bred and other countries are trying to increase their numbers as well, but what is most important now is to return these horses to the wild.”

How do you introduce a horse that has been born and bred in captivity into the wild?

“Our philosophy is to breed these horses in a way so that they do not come into contact with people as a rule. For instance in our acclimatization station they are never fed anything directly. They graze or are left food so they do not come into contact with people. In this way they are used to being self-sufficient. Another advantage is that Dolni Dobrejov is in an area labeled Czech Siberia so the climate there is different from that in Prague. So these horses are used to a cold climate which is a good starting point in their transfer to Mongolia. So, yes, it is a complicated process to release a horse bred in captivity into the wild, but we are in a good position to succeed. There they will first be kept in an enclosed, protected area for several months where they will be under supervision and receive veterinary care if necessary. So the process of releasing them will be gradual.”

Are you cooperating with any other European zoos in this? I believe this is the first transport of this breed undertaken by Prague Zoo – that in the past you sent out horses but the logistics were taken care of by other zoos?

“That is so. In past years we cooperated with partners in Switzerland and France and took part in these international transports. This time we are the organizers and one of the horses being sent out is from the Slovak zoo in Kosice so, yes, we are cooperating with partners abroad.”

How successful has the international effort been so far and what are your plans for the future in this respect?

“If you consider the fact that in the 60s there were almost none of these horses left and that right now in Mongolia there is a population of 2,000 – then you see that these efforts are successful. The population of Mongolian wild horses is growing and they roam free in three protected reservations in Mongolia. Also we are happy to say that one of the mares that we sent out previously is breeding successfully. Right now our immediate goal is to realize this transport successfully, but if we look ahead we would like to follow it up with other transports and continue to assist the breeding process in the years to come.”

Photo: Miroslav Bobek
You are around them a lot here at the zoo – what are they like in temperament?

“It is not the kind of horse that you can pet or ride. It is a wild horse. When you step into their enclosure here at Prague Zoo you see that they behave differently from other horses. They are not friendly towards people, they avoid contact with them and they are full of energy. I once witnessed one of the horses trying to kick a keeper. Such is their temperament. They are full of energy, full of dominance – they are really wild horses. It is inside of them to be free.”