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Kazakhstan: Wild horses to be reintroduced by European zoos

March 5, 2024

A German and a Czech zoo are joining forces to reintroduce endangered Przewalski's horses to the steppes of Kazakhstan. The initiative follows a similar project in Mongolia.

Two Przewalski horses in a wood
Przewalski horses are an endangered species — but are set to return to KazakhstanImage: Ingolf König-Jablonski/dpa/picture alliance

The Czech Army is set to transport the first eight of at least 40 Przewalski's horses to Kazakhstan in June as part of a joint project involving Prague Zoo and the Berlin Tierpark. The initiative aims to reintroduce the animals into the wild.

Three stallions and five mares — four horses each from Prague and Berlin— will take off on the 6,000-kilometer (3,750-mile), journey with stopovers in Istanbul, Turkey, and Baku, Azerbaijan to eventually reach to Arkalyk in northern Kazakhstan after a 15-hour flight.

From there, they will then be taken by road to the Alibi reintroduction center in Altyn Dala (Golden Steppe), where they will be free to roam and mate, their numbers scheduled to be supplemented by further arrivals over the next five years.

"This project is vital for increasing the number of Przewalski's horses in the wild," European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) chairman Endre Papp told reporters in Prague.

"What makes these reintroductions so valuable is not only the transport of the animals, but also the exchange of knowledge and expertise gained over the years," he added.

What are Przewalski's horses?

The Central Asian Przewalski's horse is the very last surviving wild horse species, according to Prague Zoo.

It was first identified by Russian scientist Nikolai Przhevalsky in 1881 but, in less than a century, had already been driven to extinction in the wild. Groups of animals only managed to survive in zoos. It is still listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Two Przewalski horses grazing outside Prague, Czech Republic, with the city skyscrapers in the background
Some Przewalski horses have been living in Prague, Czech RepublicImage: DAVID W CERNY/REUTERS

Prague Zoo, which has bred the horses since 1932 and maintains the world genealogy book tracking all new births, launched a project to reintroduce the animals to Mongolia in 2011, transporting 34 horses there between 2011 and 2019.

"The success of the endeavor can be judged by the fact that, only a year after their arrival, some of the mares were already raising their own foals," reads a statement on the zoo's official website.

However, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the "harsh realities of life in the steppes and semi-deserts of Central Asia" were a reminder that there is no quick fix.

"If we want the horses to survive in the wild in the long term, we have to do more than monitor and help their populations by providing additional food during especially tough winters," the website explains.

"We also have to enrich their genetic variety by supplying them with 'new blood,' by repeatedly releasing individuals born in human care."

The current global population of Przewalski's horses is just over 2,000 animals. About half of them are living in the wild in Mongolia, China and elsewhere.

Preserving the world’s last wild horses

mf/jsi (AFP)