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Reintroducing wild horses to the steppe will be a painstaking process

02 january 2015, 01:29
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 Sometime in 2016 a joint Kazakh-German task force will fly an important cargo from Germany to western Kazakhstan, where it will be transported to semi-arid steppeland.
The operation will be carried out with military precision, but the cargo won’t be military.
It will consist of six chubby little creatures known as Przewalski horses. (Pronounced Sha-val-sky.) 
A herd of endangered Przewalski horses. ©REUTERS
The objective of the operation is to reintroduce the horses in the wild in Kazakhstan’s steppes, where they died out 150 years ago. The reintroduction location will be the massive Altyn Dala Nature Preserve south of Kyzylorda in western Kazakhstan.
Up to 80 horses will be reintroduced in the preserve over a decade, according to Helmut Maegdefrau, assistant director of the Nuremberg Zoo, one of the reintroduction-program partners. The zoo has 14 horses of its own.
Those overseeing the Przewalskis’ reintroduction have learned lessons from two other programs. One, in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia and China, started in the early 1990s. The other, in the Altyn Emel National Park near Almaty, began in 2003.
Przewalski horses, which biologists say are the only breed man has never domesticated, once lived by the tens of thousands in the plains and forests of Central Asia, Russia, Mongolia, China, the Caucasus and Eastern Europe.
Although the horses have been around for thousands of years, they got their name only in 1881, when a Polish explorer named Colonel Nikolai Przewalski reported their existence to the Russian tsar.
Przewalski's horses. ©REUTERS
The world’s last pocket of wild Przewalskis vanished in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert in the 1960s.
But perceptive wildlife conservationists and zookeepers in Europe, Russia, the United States and elsewhere began taking steps in the middle of the 20th Century to raise the horses in captivity so they wouldn’t die out altogether.
Germany is one of the countries that spearheaded the preservation effort, so Kazakhstan wildlife officials decided to team up with German specialists to reintroduce the horses here.
Kazakhs who hold to their traditions are happy about the reintroduction plans. The horses are part of Kazakh heritage. Ancient peoples drew their images on stones thousands of years ago.
In addition to the Nuremburg Zoo’s Helmut Maegdefrau, I talked with a couple of other Germans at the forefront of the Przewalski reintroduction effort – Helmut’s boss, Dag Encke, director of the Nuremberg Zoo, and Steffen Zuther, who has worked in Kazakhstan for seven years in a German-Kazakh biodiversity program.
German national Steffen Zuther has been working in a biodiversity-preservation program in Kazakhstan for several years. That effort includes reintroducing Przewalski horses in the southwest. Photo courtesy of Steffen Zuther
They said the reintroduction process will be complicated and painstaking.
To start with, those overseeing the process will have to pay careful attention to genetics when selecting horses for the reintroduction program, Dag said. Good genetic matches will improve the animals’ chances of increasing their numbers in the wild.
Another key to the Przewalskis thriving will be wildlife specialists keeping a close watch on them. The monitoring will help identify threats to their survival – such as shortages of food or disease.
Another threat to the horses, Steffen said, will be poachers looking for a tasty meal.
Dag said a Kazakh team will visit Germany next year to learn how to care for Przewalskis.
“We’ve already sent specialists to Kazakhstan to show some of their specialists how to raise horses within a fence,” he said.
He said Kazakhstan will appoint a reintroduction-project coordinator next year. A key task for that person will be selecting two or three veterinarians to care for the horses once they’re in the national park.
“One of the things the Kazakh monitoring team will do in the Altyn Dala National Preserve is see how many foals are born each year,” Steffen said.
The horses will be wearing satellite collars to make monitoring easier, he added.
“The collars will transmit their positions to us, allowing us to track them and get to them quicker,” Steffen said.
Wildlife specialists have used the collars to track endangered saiga antelope in the Altyn Dala preserve for five years, he said.
Steffen Zuther weighs a young saiga antelope as part of his biodiversity-preservation work in Kazakhstan. Photo courtesy of Steffen Zuther
He said conservationists hope Przewalskis do as well as another threatened species that was reintroduced to the preserve -- wild asses.
Like Przewalskis, wild asses became extinct in Kazakhstan decades ago. Fourteen from Turkmenistan were placed in the Altyn Dala preserve in the 1990s.
They’ve thrived to the point that more than 3,000 live in the preserve today. That success story has prompted wildlife experts to decide to transplant some of them to the central steppe, Steffen said.
“They’ve never been as endangered as the horses worldwide,” he said, partly because asses can subsist on vegetation that Przewalskis are unable to survive on.
Steffen said the Altyn Dala Nature Preserve was chosen as the reintroduction location for the horses because few people live in the area, reducing the chance of conflicts between the animals and humans.
One reason for the sparseness of the human population in the area is that thousands left southwestern Kazakhstan after the break-up of the Soviet Union because of lack of economic opportunity, he said.
The park itself is 500,000 hectares. It is surrounded by an additional 2 million hectares of what Steffen referred to as an “ecological corridor.”
That means the horses will be able to roam over 2.5 million hectares of basically unpopulated land.
A herd of endangered Przewalski horses. ©REUTERS
The Przevalskis that will be sent to Kazakhstan will be selected from about 2,000 horses living in zoos and wildlife parks in Europe, Dag said.
He said the Prague Zoo in what was then called Czechoslovakia started a genetics logbook for Przevalskis shortly after World War II. It includes most of the animals in Europe and some from outside Europe, such as a contingent at the San Diego Zoo in the United States.
“We have to have very good genetics management for this project,” Dag said. “We need to identify females that are as far apart genetically as possible, then do the same with males.”
Such careful selection will give the Altyn Dala herd the best chance of not just sustaining itself but increasing, Dag said.
After the horses are selected, there will be a socialization process, he said. That is, they’ll be put together so they’re used to each other when they arrive in Kazakhstan.
The socialization is likely to be done at a national park in the German province of Bavaria, Dag said.
The Przevalski project is part of a broader German/Kazakh effort to preserve biodiversity in the steppes, Dag and Steffen said.
The local organization leading the effort is the Astana-based Kazakhstan Association for the Preservation of Biodiversity.
Among the eminent organizations besides the Nuremberg Zoo that are taking part in the biodiversity-preservation effort are Germany’s Frankfurt Zoological Society and Munich Zoo and Britain’s Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds.
Several staff members of Germany’s Nuremburg Zoo, including Director Dag Encke, are helping reintroduce Przewalski horses to Kazakhstan’s steppe. Photo courtesy of Dag Encke
Dag said that with its huge swaths of steppe, Kazakhstan could become a “Serengeti of the North,” teeming with wildlife. The original Serengeti, of course, is the vast plain in east-central Africa that’s home to hundreds of thousands of exotic animals.
Reintroducing grazing animals such as horses, saiga and asses actually changes the vegetation on the steppe, making it lusher. That, in turn, leads to additional species coming to the steppe, Dag said.
The Kazakh and German partners in the Przevalski reintroduction project hope the horses’ numbers in the Altyn Dala preserve eventually reach several hundred.
The herd in the Gobi, a much harsher environment than the Altyn Dala, increased to 300 before a severe winter claimed half of them.
Fourteen Przevalskis have been reintroduced to the Altyn Emel National Park near Almaty – eight in 2003 and six in 2007, Steffen said.
But the herd is having problems increasing its numbers, he said.
To start with, the Altyn Emel park has limited land for the horses to roam on.
In addition, the area is so dry that the herd is unable to stray far from its main source of water.
Finally, the horses face conflicts with the owners of the private land that hems in the park.
The habitant challenge has led to a reproduction rate that does no more than match the horses’ death rate, Dag said. This means their numbers are not increasing.

 


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