Press release: Przewalski’s horses return to central Kazakhstan after nearly 200-year absence

On Thursday the 6th of June, seven Przewalski’s horses (known as Kertagy or Kerkulan in Kazakh), the world’s last remaining genetically wild species of horse, arrived from Europe to their native homeland in Kazakhstan as part of a wider initiative to restore fully functioning steppe grassland ecosystems. 

The animals, called Ypsilonk, Zeta II, Zorro, Tessa, Sary, Wespe, and Umbra, travelled in two convoys, carried by a Czech Air Force aircraft from Prague Zoo in the Czech Republic and Berlin Zoo in Germany. The first convoy arrived in Arkalyk, Kazakhstan, on June 4th, and the second arrived on June 6th. This reintroduction aims to enhance the local wildlife, benefiting pollinators, small mammals, and ground-nesting birds through their grazing activities. 

The horses had been a key species in the Kazakh steppe before being eradicated by human activities in the mid-19th Century. This, and the future planned transportation of a further ~30 horses, aims to establish a self-sustaining population in the region. In addition to Asiatic wild ass (otherwise known as Kulan) and Saiga antelopes, the Przewalski’s horses will complete the trio of native large herbivores of the steppe ecosystem. This marks a historic return and a milestone in years of conservation work focused on building Kazakhstan’s network of protected areas and ranger capacity to ensure this reintroduction is a success. 

The animals were transported from Arkalyk to acclimatization enclosures at the Alibi reintroduction center in Central Kazakhstan, operated by project partner the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity (ACBK). Veterinarians are closely monitoring the animals to ensure full health after a long journey. The relocation was made possible by a strong conservation coalition, including the Kazakh Government’s Committee for Forestry and Wildlife, the Association for the Conservation of the Biodiversity of Kazakhstan, Frankfurt Zoological Society, Prague Zoo, Nuremberg Zoo, Tierpark Berlin, and Hortobagy National Park.

Image credit: Václav Šilha, Zoo Praha.

Quotes: 

“It’s an honor for us as the leading authority for biodiversity conservation in Kazakhstan to spearhead such an important moment in the restoration of the natural history of our country, and we are committed to the realization of our original vision, as set out during the Kazakh-Czech Business Forum in Astana, where on April 24, 2023, the Committee of Forestry and Wildlife and Prague Zoo signed a memorandum to jointly return the wild horses to the steppe.” – stated  Daniyar Turgambayev the Chairman of the Committee of Forestry and Wildlife 

“This is the beginning of a whole new chapter in the story of the last wild horse on the planet. Regarding the relatively short time for preparation of the project and the unexpected floods in Central Kazakhstan, it is almost a miracle that we are now watching these Przewalski’s running on the Kazakh soil. All the hard work paid off and whilst there is a lot more to be done, the pioneering horses, the founders of the local population are here and that is what matters now,” states the Prague Zoo director Miroslav Bobek. 

Prague Zoo has previously acquired experience reintroducing the species to Mongolia during its nine aerial transports between 2011–2019. In 2022 they were contacted by the Committee for Forestry and Wildlife of Kazakhstan to organize this reintroduction project of the last wild horse to Kazakhstan. 

The horses will stay some months in a specially designed area before being released into the wild. Vera Voronova, CEO of the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan, shared: “The team at ACBK have been working hard since last year to ensure that our Reintroduction Centre, Alibi, is ready for the horses’ arrival. We have overcome many challenges, including a recent flood, and I am happy to say that Alibi is a fantastic location for these horses for their acclimatization period in Kazakhstan.” 

“This is an extremely exciting moment for the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative”, added Stephanie Ward, from Frankfurt Zoological Society. “We have long dreamed of the day that Przewalski’s horses would join the Saiga antelope and Kulan in the great steppe wilderness that is central Kazakhstan. Thanks to a unique partnership of zoos, NGOs and governments, we are finally seeing this species, so important as an ecosystem engineer, return to its historic range.” Stephanie is the International Coordinator of the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative, “Our vision is to restore fully functioning steppe ecosystems in Kazakhstan”, she said. 

Tierpark Berlin, one of the partners in this conservation effort, also expressed their enthusiasm for the project. “The reintroduction of Przewalski’s horses to Central Kazakhstan is a significant achievement for global conservation efforts. These horses represent a vital part of our natural heritage, and their return to the wild is a testament to the collaborative efforts of the international community,” says Dr Andreas Knieriem, Director of Zoo and Tierpark Berlin.  Tierpark Berlin has a long history in breeding Przewalski’s horses and providing them for reintroduction. 

ENDS  

Background and Notes to Editor: 

Further interviews, images and video are available to support your coverage of this story. Please contact Stephanie Ward (ward@zgf.de) and Nils Elbert (elbert@zgf.de) to arrange. 

Frankfurt Zoological Society along with its partner Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity in Kazakhstan (ACBK) have been working closely together as part of the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative since 2006 to preserve and enhance the grassland landscapes of Kazakhstan. The aim is to reestablish fully functional ecosystems of the steppe, semi-desert, and desert. We work across an area spanning around 750,000 km², which is more than twice the size of Germany. 

Inherent to steppe ecosystems are large grazers, and for Kazakhstan, these are Przewalski’s horses and Asiatic wild ass, called Kulan. As its native megaherbivores, they redistribute resources over long distances: their dung enhances soil fertilization, boosts insect numbers, and disperses the seeds of stationary plant species. This increases vegetational diversity and helps the ecosystem resist desertification and wildfires, two major causes of carbon being released from the soil.  

The large herbivores further provide services for smaller wildlife in the landscape by facilitating access to water through their digging in dry riverbeds and lakes, and by exposing fodder hidden under thick snow cover in winter. And like all ungulates, they feed into the food web as prey for large predators such as wolves, and their carcasses serve as a food source for scavengers. It is anticipated that the impact of Przewalski’s horses and Kulan will strengthen the steppe ecosystem and provide habitats for many smaller species, such as ground nesting birds. 

Institutions and organisations cooperating in the project:  

The Committee of Forestry and Wildlife is a state body and agency within the competence of the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources of the Republic of Kazakhstan, carrying out implementation, control and supervisory functions in the field of forestry, protection, reproduction and use of wildlife and specially protected natural areas. 

The Prague Zoo manages the international breeding book of Przewalski’s horses, as well as the EEP (EAZA Ex situ) program, which is a program of the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums (EAZA) for the management and conservation of wild animal populations living in European zoos. The program was formerly known as the European Endangered Species Program. Prague Zoo organized and conducted the reintroduction of Przewalski’s horses in western Mongolia in 2012 – 2019. 

Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK) is the largest Kazakhstani non-governmental organization working in the field of biodiversity conservation and environmental education. 

Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS) is an international organization that coordinates projects to protect endangered species and ecosystems in 18 countries around the world. In 2005, it co-founded the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative. In 2017, the Initiative began supporting the reintroduction of the Kulan to the steppes of Central Kazakhstan.   

ACBK and FZS are part of The Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative, which is a large-scale partnership program of national and international conservation organizations. Since 2005 ACBK together with the Forestry and Wildlife Committee, Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS), Fauna & Flora (F&F) and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) have been implementing this Initiative. It aims to conserve and study Kazakhstan’s unique steppe ecosystems and restore key species, e.g. Saiga antelope, Kulan and Przewalski’s horse. In 2023, the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative was recognized as a World Restoration Flagship under the UN Decade for Ecosystem Restoration. 

Tierpark Berlin in the German capital already participated in the past in the breeding, management, and reintroduction of various animal species, and it cooperated on the protection of Przewalski’s horses as well. Within the project Return of the Wild Horses, it provides horses from its own breeding, collects candidates from other European institutions to its own breeding facility, and it will directly participate in their transport to Kazakhstan. 

The Nuremberg Zoo is a public non-profit zoological park specializing in ex situ conservation of endangered species and their in situ conservation in cooperation with partners in their countries of origin. In the past it has been involved in the reintroduction of Przewalski’s horses to Central Asia. 

Hortobágy is a Hungarian national park providing environmental education services. It is currently home to the largest population of Przewalski’s horse under human care. Selected horses from this park are suitable candidates for reintroduction programs. 

Posted in

Help to fund the initiative.

 Whether you are an individual, business or organisation, we’d love to welcome you onto our team of amazing supporters.