Return of the wild horses

Tierpark curator Christian Kern reports from Mongolia on the species reintroduction programme

The Przewalski’s horse (Equus przewalskii), known as the “takhi” in Mongolian, is the last surviving species of wild horse in the world. Its reintroduction into the wild is often cited as one of the most successful species conservation programmes ever coordinated by zoos. The following report will show just how much patience, courage, expertise and financial resources are required to realise such a project. Tierpark curator and zoologist Christian Kern loves to travel the world, exploring animal habitats and learning about different cultures. In July 2016, he used his holiday to participate in the fifth transport of animals for the reintroduction project “Return of the Wild Horses” organised by Prague Zoo. Here he gives us a personal insight into his adventures in Mongolia.


The Przewalski’s horse was declared extinct in the wild in the late 1960s, with the last sighting of the wild horse reported in 1969 in the Dzungarian Gobi. Fortunately, however, the species survived thanks to coordinated breeding programmes in zoos across Europe, the United States, and the countries of the former Soviet Union. In the early 1990s, the Mongolian government decided it wanted the wild horse to be reintroduced to its native habitat in Mongolia. Opinions varied as to whether this should take place in the south at “Gobi B” – a nature reserve on the edge of the Gobi Desert – or in the north. In the end, both locations were chosen. In 1992, the first wild horses were successfully released into the wild at Hustai National Park, which lies roughly 100 km west of the capital Ulaanbaatar. These horses had been bred in European zoos and the Askania-Nova reserve in Ukraine. The reintroduction programme for Gobi B in the southwest of the country began that same year. This is the region where the last wild horse was spotted in 1969. Several large acclimation enclosures were set up on the northwestern border of Gobi B – an area known as Takhin Tal – along with a base station for the park rangers. Unlike Gobi A, the Gobi B reserve is a semi-desert – yet it is a more extreme habitat for the wild horse than the grass steppes of Hustai National Park. The horses reintroduced to Gobi B had also been bred in European zoos. These transports took place from 1992 to 2001, with logistical management of the nature reserve and scientific supervision of the project provided by the International Takhi Group (ITG). The Gobi B population began to grow steadily after 2001, until an unusually harsh winter in 2009/2010 with a dense layer of snow over one metre thick saw their numbers collapse from 137 to just 49. To enable the population to recover and to further increase its genetic diversity, Prague Zoo and the ITG decided to transport more wild horses from Europe to Gobi B. Since 2011, Prague Zoo – in cooperation with the Czech military – has organised and paid for four wild horses to be flown to Takhin Tal every year in June/July. The success of the project is plain to see: five years on, the population of wild horses in Gobi B is back up to more than 160.

This summer, four wild horses were transported from Prague Zoo to the Gobi B nature reserve in Mongolia for the fifth time. The animals were selected from the European Endangered Species Programme (EEP) and came from various European zoos. Their period of quarantine took place at Prague Zoo. Also this year, and for the first time since 2007, foals born in the wild were transferred within Mongolia from Hustai National Park to Gobi B.



A military escort for the precious animals

Although the process may sound simple, it is actually incredibly complex. Given that Czech military planes have limited cargo capacity, my own journey began a few days before the arrival of the horses. On 7 July, I took a flight from Berlin via Munich and Beijing to Ulaanbaatar. After almost three days in Mongolia’s capital, I met with my colleague – the director of Prague Zoo. We travelled straight from the airport to Hustai National Park, where we inspected the horses that were being prepared for transport, checked the condition of the route for the trucks, and sorted out logistical details and issues on-site. One thing in particular that hit me – or rather that hit my nose – when we reached the steppes of Hustai was an intense scent of herbs. The next morning, back in Ulaanbaatar, we rose early to take a three-hour flight in a small Fokker aircraft from the capital to Khovd, the largest city in western Mongolia. Our time here was spent meeting more staff from Prague Zoo and buying water and supplies for our stay in Takhin Tal and Gobi B.

A reunion with Berlin-born Barca?

The route from Khovd to Takhin Tal at the edge of Gobi B is around 430 km in length and leads partly through the foothills of the Altai Mountains. It was on this journey that I spotted my first ever wild Daurian pikas and Bactrian camels! That evening we all assembled at the ranger’s base station, where we were welcomed by the director of Gobi B nature reserve. A biologist born in Gobi B, this extremely likeable and genuine man told us that not only can he distinguish between every wild horse in his reserve (!) but that he also knows each one by name. This included the horse Barca, born in 2009 in Tierpark Berlin and relocated to Gobi B via Prague in 2013. Since summer 2014, this mare has been living wild with her harem in Gobi B. This alone was reason enough for me to pay a personal visit to this habitat. To spare you the suspense: I never got to see Barca – she lives with a particularly shy and elusive herd. After I had already left, however, my colleagues from Prague did manage to catch a glimpse of her and sent me a photograph. But back to that first evening in Takhin Tal: As guests we were welcomed in true Mongolian fashion with speeches, good food and vodka. That night – and indeed every night spent in Takhin Tal – we slept in tents known in Mongolia as gers rather than yurts. Running water and Wi-Fi were out of the question – the mere thought of such luxury was enough to make us laugh. But the beautiful landscape – which was once again filled with the scent of herbs like camomile and mugwort – the magnificent blue sky and the colour and light that played across the infinite expanse of Gobi B more than made up for the lack of home comforts. I must say that Gobi B is without doubt one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen on my travels.

Preparation is everything

Over the next two days, we prepared for the arrival of the four European wild horses from Prague. This involved checking the fences surrounding the acclimation enclosures for damage and stability. We also travelled further afield to Bulgan – a small town close to the Chinese border that has an airfield with a runway. This is the closest place to Takhin Tal that the Czech military planes could land. There, we made arrangements with the airport staff and checked the tower and the runway together with a navigation officer from the Czech air force who had flown out in advance. The trucks that were to be used to transport the animals from Bulgan to Takhin Tal were also inspected. All preventable errors had to be eliminated so as to avoid potentially risky delays in the transport of the horses. The four transport crates would need to be divided between two trucks to allow us to drive faster. A third truck was hired for back-up, so that if one of the other two broke down it could take over and complete the journey from Bulgan airfield to Takhin Tal. But there was one risk factor that we had no control over: the weather. The pilot would be landing the plane in Bulgan by sight alone. If the cloud in the mountains was too low, landing would be impossible and the plane would have to divert to Khovd. Too high temperatures would be bad for the horses in the transport crates and rain would turn the roads to mud tracks.

Touch down of the wild horses

On 17 July, the moment we had all been waiting for arrived: the CASA military aircraft landed at around 4 p.m. local time in Bulgan. The weather was perfect with blue skies, good temperatures and dry roads. Once customs clearance and veterinary checks had been completed at the airfield, the four crates were loaded from the plane onto the trucks. The animals were accompanied and looked after by the director, vet, hoof stock curator and head zookeeper of Prague Zoo, all of whom have years of experience dealing with unusual transports such as this. The main aim now was to get to Takhin Tal by the fastest route possible. In this case, “the fastest route possible” took six and a half hours! We made several stops along the way to give the animals water and hay, both of which were eargerly accepted.

Returning home

The image of this convoy – made up of three trucks and five SUVs – driving through Gobi B in the setting sun is one that I will never forget. Perhaps it is sentimental, but knowing the history of the Przewalski’s horse in Mongolia as described above, it truly felt as though we were bringing the species home. It does make me feel quite proud to have been a part of it, even though I know that Tierpark Berlin has already provided this project and similar ones in China and Mongolia with 17 of its own wild horses – and will continue to do so. Our convoy reached Takhin Tal at around 11 p.m. All four transport crates were lined up next to one another in the acclimation enclosure and the sliding doors were opened. The animals’ hooves touched Mongolian soil for the very first time – some bolted out of their crates while others walked out casually. The most important thing was that these wild horses had reached their destination safe and sound. They will remain in their acclimation enclosure until next summer, giving them a controlled environment in which to get used to the new and extreme climate, new fodder crops and parasites.

Reinforcement from the northwest: Transfer of the wild relatives

The following day was spent relaxing at the base camp, with the exception of two small excursions into Gobi B. The next day we travelled back to Bulgan, where we caught a flight the day after that to Ulaanbaatar with the military aircraft and the empty transport crates. From here we went straight on to Hustai National Park, where we spent the evening testing the tranquiliser guns while our Prague colleague and vet prepared the tranquiliser darts and his mobile pharmacy for loading the animals the following day. We had a very early start the next morning. Departure from camp had been scheduled for 4:30 a.m. so that we could start to load the horses at sunrise. To avoid causing the wild animals any unnecessary stress, only a small team was allowed to go with the vet to the enclosure where the horses had spent the past week being trained to remain inside a fenced-off area. The four horses were tranquilised one after the other and woken up again once safely inside their transport crates. I sat next to the driver in one of the three trucks and, on this occasion, was responsible for Hustai – the only stallion in the group. My duties included regularly checking that the animal was standing properly and pouring water over the felt mat covering the crate so as to lower the temperature inside. After a more than two-hour drive through the steppes, we were joined by a police escort who accompanied us through the capital, making sure we made it through the dense city traffic and to the airport as quickly as possible. The military plane took off at noon with the four wild horses from Hustai National Park on board, landing in Bulgan three hours later. Like last time, the last leg of the journey was by truck to Takhin Tal.

A ray of hope in Mongolia

Twenty-six foals have already been born in Gobi B in 2016 alone, and now eight new wild horses (one stallion and seven mares) have been added to the population of Gobi B takhis.

Following consultations between Prague Zoo, the Przewalski’s horse EEP and Tierpark Berlin, Konni the mare – born in 2014 in Tierpark Berlin – was selected in early 2016 for the Gobi B reintroduction project. She was transferred to Prague Zoo in April of this year and, with any luck, will be returning to the homeland of her ancestors in summer 2017.

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Sebastian Heinrichs 16. August 2016