Returning the Przewalski's horses to the wild is something that went really well, says Miroslav Bobek

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09. 08. 2021


The Return of the Wild Horses conservation programme is one of Prague Zoo’s proudest achievements. The return of Przewalski's horses to the wilds of Mongolia began exactly ten years ago after uncommonly bad weather caused the death of a large part of the local population. We spoke to Miroslav Bobek, Director of Prague Zoo, about the current state of the last truly wild and free-living horses.

Photo: Evžen Kůs, Prague Zoo Photo: Evžen Kůs, Prague Zoo

We tend to forget bad news after a while. So just how bad was it for the Przewalski’s horse 50 years ago?

It was shortly after World War II that the professional community realised just how bad this species’ situation had become. This was partly because of the state of the populations in its original range, in Mongolia, and partly because of the state of breeding in captivity, especially after the war had swept through Europe. Probably the worst moments, as concerns its survival in the wild, were during the 1960s.

Why then?

It was already more or less clear that it was probably extinct in the wild, or that only a few animals lived there, which meant they had virtually no chance of survival.

But we must be careful when assigning specific numbers here, because the number of Przewalski's horses in the wild was a huge unknown. It can be likened a little to the situation of the northern white rhino, for example. There is speculation that it is “possibly maybe” living somewhere in Sudan. But this information is usually chock-a-block with optimistic or pessimistic inaccuracies.

The fact is that, in the sixties, the last range of the Przewalski's horses, today's Great Gobi B Strictly Protected Area, was near the Mongol Chinese border and was one of the most difficult places to reach. This definitely influenced the accuracy of any estimates at how many specimens lived in the wild.

Miroslav Bobek studied zoology at the Faculty of Science of Charles University in Prague. From 1993 to 2009 he worked at Czech Radio, where he initially worked as an editor, from 1998-2000 he was the editor-in-chief of the radio station Praha, in 2000 he founded the division Czech Radio 8 (Online) and became its editor-in-chief, and from 2009 he was the director of the popular science station Leonardo. In 2009, he won the contest to become the director of Zoo Prague and took over this position on 1 January 2010. In June 2014 he was elected President of the Union of Czech and Slovak Zoological Gardens. He held this position until 2016. Photo: Khalil Baalbaki,Prague ZooMiroslav Bobek studied zoology at the Faculty of Science of Charles University in Prague. From 1993 to 2009 he worked at Czech Radio, where he initially worked as an editor, from 1998-2000 he was the editor-in-chief of the radio station Praha, in 2000 he founded the division Czech Radio 8 (Online) and became its editor-in-chief, and from 2009 he was the director of the popular science station Leonardo. In 2009, he won the contest to become the director of Zoo Prague and took over this position on 1 January 2010. In June 2014 he was elected President of the Union of Czech and Slovak Zoological Gardens. He held this position until 2016. Photo: Khalil Baalbaki,Prague Zoo

What was the main reason for their numbers dropping so drastically in the wild?

I don't think anyone can tell you for sure...

Competition with livestock, regional climate change? Hunting?

I have a feeling that a cross-section of options fits. But it always reflects specific areas and people.

The Mongols did not hunt the Przewalski's horse. However, the areas where it was last found were largely inhabited by Kazakhs, and they hunt horses. To this day, maps of the Gobi B region still have place names that recall this history. For example, one site had a name that could be loosely translated as Horse Meat Camp, a place where they dried the meat of wild horses.

Regionally, competition from domestic horses and cattle certainly played an important role. This is why the Przewalski's horse was found in the border areas. One would think that pastoralism alone would probably not have been enough to push them to the edge of their range, and that some diseases transferred from domestic to wild horses may have been at play, but this is simply speculation.

1896. Pictured here is a Przewalski's horse hunted in western China for the Grim-Grzinajlo Brothers Museum. Photo: Prague Zoo´s archives1896. Pictured here is a Przewalski's horse hunted in western China for the Grim-Grzinajlo Brothers Museum. Photo: Prague Zoo´s archives

And your personal guess, expert opinion?

Personally, I’d say, beyond what we’ve just gone over, that the hunting expeditions of the late 19th and early 20th century had a strong impact on Przewalski's horse populations, which made the situation even worse. Because, at the time, the capture of horses involved killing the old animals. The lead stallions and the foals then went all the way to Russia, where they could be loaded onto a train. These transport losses were obviously quite high. For sure it would be possible to track down estimates somewhere of how many horses died for every foal imported to Europe or America. However, the severe winters and then the military presence in the border areas may also have had an impact on a severely depleted population.

The situation for Przewalski's horses in the wild in the 1960s seemed desperate, hopeless...

Yes, but by that time the Przewalski's horse population in captivity was already growing, and one could at least entertain a return strategy. Although it was still far from optimistic. The animals that had lived in captivity until the 1950s had a total of eleven ancestors from the wild. It needed a conservation breeding strategy on a transnational level.

So, it is very much to the credit of Dr Cyril Purkyně who convened the first international conference dedicated to the conservation of the Przewalski's horse in 1959. There it was agreed to set up a world studbook, which has been kept in Prague ever since.

There are quite a few animal species that have been or are in a similar situation as the Przewalski's horse. How come we have been able to mobilise resources and conserve them, but have not been able to do the same for other species?

There are a great many factors and I do not want to oversimplify. But let's say that the very first prerequisite is that the animals have somewhere to return to, which was the case with the Przewalski’s horse. Gobi B hasn't changed. That's something we don't have for a lot of endangered species. They move away and disappear precisely because their natural habitat has been destroyed.

The second aspect is that the Przewalski's horse is a “relatively” easy animal to reintroduce. For instance, it doesn’t have to learn to hunt from its parents, which is a major problem when returning big cats.

Then there’s the will, the willingness to fight for such an animal’s return, it also plays a big part in it. It takes an institution and a person to take this on, but it also takes initiative on the part of the “recipient”, so that they create favourable conditions for it to happen.

A Czech Army CASA C295M military aircraft lands at Bulgan, Mongolia in 2012. The airport has domestic airport status and the landing of the flight from Prague had to be approved by the Mongolian government. The aircraft has a major advantage in that it can land on an unpaved surface. Photo: Jaroslav Šimek, Prague ZooA Czech Army CASA C295M military aircraft lands at Bulgan, Mongolia in 2012. The airport has domestic airport status and the landing of the flight from Prague had to be approved by the Mongolian government. The aircraft has a major advantage in that it can land on an unpaved surface. Photo: Jaroslav Šimek, Prague Zoo

What does that last aspect entail in the context of Mongolia?

For example, it doesn’t burden the process of returning the animals with unnecessary bureaucracy; it creates a protected area with a specific regime; it will be supervised by rangers. Simply so that someone will take care of the returnees. That is not always a given, and our cooperation with Mongolia is exemplary in this respect.

What are the locals’ attitudes towards the Przewalski's horse?

They really do consider it as a vital animal. I don't want to say that it has some divine aspect for them, but it is definitely an animal that they see as having significant value. It's a species that attracts attention.

One advantage, that is not immediately visible, is that such a flagship species then also draws public attention to the conservation of those species that are not so interesting, thus safeguarding their existence.

Can it be said, then, that there is a secure future for returning the horses to Mongolia?

I am convinced that yes, it is.

Moreover, Mongolia intends to return a large part of its territory to nature. It is restricting mining and agriculture in selected areas, and the current situation is a far cry from what it was after the war or in the 1960s.

So, we're conserving Przewalski's horse for now. When will it have been saved?

That’s a difficult question to answer.

By definition, it will be saved when it is no longer under pressure that could cause it to disappear.

So, from that point of view, the Przewalski’s is almost saved. Nevertheless, we can still make more effort to bring it back more widely into Mongolia and Inner Asia. Personally, I think it has already been saved.

There are enough individuals in captivity, plenty in semi-freedom, and quite a few now in the four areas of their original range.

Transporting the horses from Bulgan Sum to the Takhin Tal area went well into the night hours. Photo: Václav Šilha, Prague ZooTransporting the horses from Bulgan Sum to the Takhin Tal area went well into the night hours. Photo: Václav Šilha, Prague Zoo

Is that why you are also considering moving the horses from the Red List of Endangered Species to the Green List?

Well, we have a Red List with different categories of threat level, which usually goes up to the point that the animal is eventually extinct. But the Green List has been developed in the case of animals that have started to move into the lower, not so acute, categories of threat.

You know, it’s positive news. When the alarm about the disappearance of animals has been sounding for decades – by which I by no means doubt the validity of the alarm - it is also necessary to bring the good news that we have also achieved something and that our efforts are not in vain.

Can the recipe for saving the Przewalski's horse be taken as a universal, and can it be used elsewhere?

It’s difficult. In general, it is valid to say so, but each species and each area has its own specifics.

But you can't make a precise cookbook based on a Przewalski’s. You can make a frame or an outline, but then you must fill that in with some of your own ingredients.

200 km of steppes, the last 50 km or so through rugged terrain with sand dunes, and one deep ford between them. Photo: Miroslav Bobek, Prague Zoo200 km of steppes, the last 50 km or so through rugged terrain with sand dunes, and one deep ford between them. Photo: Miroslav Bobek, Prague Zoo

So how long - under ideal conditions - does it take to transport a horse from the zoo to freedom in the Mongolian Gobi?

First off, horses of the right age and condition are chosen from European breeding facilities. They are brought to the breeding and acclimatisation station in Dobřejov in autumn, where they are kept in open spaces and in a rather extreme climate, for Czech conditions. This is where they get used to the natural conditions.

Then comes the demanding transport to Mongolia, where they spend another year being supervised by rangers in the acclimatization pen. It is only then that they are released into complete freedom.

So, hypothetically, the absolute minimum time before a horse transported from Prague can run wild in Mongolia is a year and a half.

Do you think the horses’ acclimatization is sufficient? In 2010, the hard Mongolian winter, the zud, also affected the animals in the pens, didn’t it?

I would not associate a zud, harsh winters, with a lack of acclimatization. In 2010, most of them were offspring of horses imported earlier by Germans and Swiss. They had already adapted. This was an extreme situation, and even horses that were very well-prepared fell victim to it. It is an event that simply happens now and then in that region. 

Finally at their destination. Photo: Petr Zavadil, Prague ZooFinally at their destination. Photo: Petr Zavadil, Prague Zoo

How much does it cost to return a Przewalski's horse?

If we only take in the direct costs of transporting the horses, it is roughly one million Czech crowns to fly the CASA military aircraft.

That’s not too bad …

Here it's worth mentioning the superior standard we have thanks to the Czech Army. Without them it wouldn’t have been possible, and cooperation with the army is not something that is particularly common in the conservation world.

You must consider the personal commitment - and especially the personal risk - that these air officers put into it. Simply landing on unpaved surfaces somewhere in Mongolia after a 20-hour flight is enough.

If we tried to finance the lease of a transport plane without their help, it would have been many millions, and not merely one.

But that’s just for the transfer, isn’t it?

Yes. But we don’t do just the transport. It's also about the equipment for the rangers, the cars and bikes for them, the facilities. We renovated the hospital, built guard posts. On top of that, we are co-financing research in Mongolia, and not only on horses. It's a lot. Now that we can give five crowns from the entrance fee, from each visitor's passage through the zoo’s turnstile, to these in situ projects, we have great opportunities. 

Przewalski’s horses. Photo: Miroslav Bobek, Prague ZooPrzewalski’s horses. Photo: Miroslav Bobek, Prague Zoo

Ten years ago, on June 16th, the first transfer of Przewalski's horses set off for Mongolia. How do you see it today? Are you satisfied, or is there room for improvement?

Well, I always want everything to be better and bigger, but in the context of what we do, I consider the Przewalski's horse to be something that went really well.

And it would be a profanity for me to want something more than what we have and what we've achieved. I don't want to sound too boastful, but with the Przewalski’s horses everything runs like clockwork, even in terms of cooperation with the Mongolian side. It came together really well - people from the zoo, people from the army and our Mongolian colleagues.

And the result - great. If someone had told me ten years ago that this would be the way it would be one day in the future, I would not have believed it possible.

 

PRAGUE (Ekolist.cz)