Prague Zoo taking responsibility for the survival of endangered breeds

Photo: Kristýna Maková

Three years ago Prague Zoo launched its biggest conservation project to date – helping to save the Przewalski horse from extinction. The zoo successfully breeds these Mongolian wild horses here in the Czech Republic and then transports them 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 Ptáčinská Jirátová to find out how the project has been coming along.

Photo: Kristýna Maková
“We have been realizing this project for three years now and have already transported 12 horses to Mongolia. We are very happy that they are well-accommodated, that they are fine and that their health is quite good. The horses we sent from Prague have grown used to living in the wild and have assimilated with those already there and also the mares have had their first young. That we consider to be the biggest success of this project. At this moment we are preparing the fourth transport of horses to Mongolia and preparing the next four horses which are going to be transported there.”

You breed these horses here at the Prague Zoo and then transport them to the Mongolian steppes –how many do you have here, how many of them are there in the world today and what zoos do you cooperate with?

“Prague Zoo has two locations for these horses, one on the grounds of the zoo itself and then we have a special acclimatization station in Dolní Dobřejov –that is located in an area known as Czech Siberia where the weather conditions are closest to those in Mongolia. We have around twenty horses at this point and altogether in European zoos there are around 1,000. There were none left in the wild but thanks to joint effort to save the Przewalski horse there are now around 350 of them in Mongolia.”

What does it entail to transport them there are give them a good start in the wild?

Jana Ptáčinská Jirátová,  photo: Jan Sklenář
“The first thing is to choose the right horses because not all the horses are sturdy enough to survive the trip and acclimatize in their new environment. So we choose strong horses, horses that are in good health and particularly we focus on females because we want them to breed as much as possible. So the first thing is to find the right horse and then of course there is the administrative part of it – the red tape involved, which is quite complicated and difficult. We are in touch with Mongolian organizations and the Mongolian authorities, we have to fill out lots of documents relating to veterinary conditions that have to be met and so on. And, last but not least, we have to find the money to fund the transports. Because transporting horses from the Czech Republic to Mongolia is not cheap, it’s actually quite expensive and you have to find a plane that can take them there and so we are very pleased to be able to cooperate with the Czech army which helps us to realize the transports in their own CASA planes. So thanks to this cooperation we do not pay excessive fees for these transports just cover the real costs of the plane journey.”

Who are your sponsors in this project?

“We are very happy that the public supports us in this activity. People contribute via donation SMS messages, they send money to a special account in support of the project and we also raise money by selling souvenirs with the Przewalski horse and the motto “We help them survive”. So that is part of the income used, but of course the main part comes from our sponsors and partners in the project.”

So what zoos do you cooperate with on the project? Who else is in on this?

Photo: Miroslav Bobek / Zoo Praha
“In the 1990s there were international transports to Mongolia. Dutch, German and British organizations started transporting horses there to try to save the breed. In the past no zoos were involved in this effort –it was done exclusively by commercial organizations. But, unfortunately, after a few years the efforts ground to a halt even though the need to bring in new horses and keep the project alive was pressing. There was no more money and the transports stopped. And this was the reason why approximately four years ago we started thinking about renewing these activities and continuing in these efforts.”

Is it difficult to get the horses to breed once they are there and to live in the wild when they were used to being taken care of?

“The most difficult part is getting them acclimatized to the weather and ground conditions, to new food and new animals in their vicinity. They have to grow stronger so that they can survive the winter in their new conditions. Because in Mongolia there is a big difference in temperatures in the winter and summer –they range from minus forty to plus forty so it is a big extreme which the horses have to get used to.”

How long did it take for the first foal to appear and how many do you have there now?

“We had to wait a whole year for the first foal, but now we have three of them and we know that five mares are pregnant.”

And the Mongolian authorities are helpful? I understand two or three Mongolian officials traveled to Prague last week to thank you for your efforts. Do they give these horses protection in the space they are in?

Photo: Miroslav Bobek / Zoo Praha
“Yes, the Mongolian people are very helpful. For them the Przewalski horse is like a symbol, an animal that they admire, revere even. They really want to support the conservation project so it’s a better situation than in other parts of the third world. Somewhere you launch conservation projects and the locals are not involved, but in Mongolia the people really want to save the horses. They are eager to help us, they join our activities and they want to reach the same goal. So it is a big advantage to have such support from the locals and the authorities do everything in their power to make sure there are new transports every year and help us protect the horses in the area where we settle them. So I think the horses are in good hands there.”

So what happens now – how long does the project continue for? How many horses will it take for you to say, OK we are happy with that, we are satisfied, they are saved?

"As many as possible. The population of Przewalski horses seems quite stable now in Mongolia but the winters are dangerous and one winter could destroy the whole population. So we try to transport as many horses as we can."