Q&A: reintroducing Przewalski’s horse to the Kazakh Steppe

Later this year, the magnificent Przewalski’s horse will return to the vast landscapes of Kazakhstan, having vanished from the country over a century ago. We interviewed our colleagues, Albert Salemgareyev and Stephanie Ward, who are leading our Initiative’s involvement in this reintroduction process, to understand the obstacles overcome and the significance of this project in contributing to the ecological restoration of Kazakhstan.

1. What is Przewalski’s horse?

Przewalski’s horse is the last genetically wild horse on Earth. From a scientific standpoint, the species was first identified in 1881 by Russian geographer Nikolay Przhevalsky, who encountered 11 individuals in the westernmost regions of Mongolia. It is from these horses that all present-day populations of Przewalski’s horse originate.

The realisation that these wild horses were at risk of disappearing from their natural habitat prompted a conference in 1951 to explore strategies for saving the species. Although the species did vanish entirely from the wild in 1960, there were fortunately protected individuals in several European zoos. In the 1990s, the first reintroductions to the wild began, first to China and subsequently to Mongolia.

First international symposium on the rescue of Przewalski’s horse. Credit: Prague Zoo

2. Can you provide a brief overview of the Przewalski’s horse reintroduction project in Kazakhstan?

As part of the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative, we have long sought to bring back the historic assemblage of steppe species, and the Przewalski’s horse has always numbered among them. Back in 2010, the first group of international Przewalski’s horse experts visited the central steppes of Kazakhstan and identified this location as an excellent option for the species reintroduction. Over the following 2 years, a lot of planning was undertaken, including identifying the perfect location for equid reintroductions and building enclosures to accommodate the animals when they arrived. This Reintroduction Centre was named Alibi.

Unfortunately, it was impossible to reintroduce the horses at this time due to their legal status in Kazakhstan. In order to conduct an international reintroduction, the legal status of the species needs to clearly outline its protection. In Kazakhstan, this means that for the Przewalski’s horse to be reintroduced, it needs to be listed in the National Red Data Book. This took longer than we expected, and so rather than lose time waiting for a political decision, we chose to focus on another equid species that was formally resident in the steppe, the Kulan (also known as the Asiatic wild ass).

In 2021, the status of the Przewalski’s horse did change in Kazakhstan: listing it as a protected species. In 2023, the Kazakh Government asked Prague Zoo to assist with a translocation of Przewalski’s horse from Europe into Kazakhstan. There was then a big delegation from the Czech and Kazakh governments to several Protected Areas in Kazakhstan, to jointly identify the best location for the species’ reintroduction. The chosen location was Alibi, which didn’t come as a surprise as it was here that preparations had been made for the horses in 2012.

3. Are there specific ecological benefits that the horses bring to the region?

There are many benefits of returning large herbivores to the steppe. The Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative has been studying the ecology of Saiga antelope for many years, and we know that they are selective grazers who move across the landscape in search for their preferred types of grasses. In doing so, they fulfil the important ecological function of distributing the seeds of specific plants across the steppe. 

Unlike the Saiga, the Przewalski’s horse prefers a much broader selection of grasses, and in turn distributes the seeds of additional plant species across their shared steppe environment, playing a complimentary role.  In addition to this, their dung piles provide nutrients to other plants and decomposers, such as insects. 

The equids are also really important for providing access to water for other creatures. Where you have dry riverbeds or deep snow, the Przewalski’s horses and Kulan can dig and move the ground to create access points to water. When they move on, those access points are then there to serve other creatures in the ecosystem that don’t have that digging power. 

Their digging is also important for exposing vegetation, especially when there’s a lot of snow or when it’s particularly dry, which also provides access points for other creatures. 

When thinking about the larger food web, their carcasses provide significant food for large predators and for scavengers. Wild horses also play an important spiritual and cultural role for local communities, and in the future could support ecotourism enterprises. 

4. What challenges have your team faced during the reintroduction process thus far, and how were they addressed?

We’ve faced several challenges in relation to veterinary drugs, as the drugs needed for these large equids have a different status in Kazakhstan, which makes it difficult to buy and use from non-registered vets and hospitals. A lot of these drugs are legally registered for human, not animal use, and the laws differ across different countries. 

There’s also a huge number of logistical challenges of transporting animals across the border into Kazakhstan, as is often the case with international translocations. There will be two aeroplanes (one from Berlin and one from Prague) carrying the horses. These planes need to land in airports in Kazakhstan where there are customs procedures and enough infrastructure and emergency response units to welcome a military aircraft carrying people from around the world as well as 4 horses per aeroplane.

The nearest airport to the reintroduction centre requires some enhancement for this purpose, and then after the planes have been unloaded, an additional journey by road to Alibi is required. All of these logistics are very challenging, but the partnership takes them with good spirit and positive energy as so many people are working collaboratively to make this a success. 

Another challenge we’ve faced relates to completing the necessary building works at Alibi. The weather in Kazakhstan can be extreme, so improving the infrastructure and building enclosures at the reintroduction centre has a small window of opportunity. It’s a lot to achieve in one year. 

5. Did your team collaborate with other organisations or local communities for this project? What role have they played?

In April 2023, there was a Czech – Kazakh business forum. As part of that forum, the two governments signed a Memorandum of Understanding, which set out the intention that Prague Zoo would assist the Government of Kazakhstan in transporting the wild horses to the steppes of Kazakhstan. This political intention has been the foundation for the rest of the work. An MoU was signed in February 2024, between the seven partners involved in this large translocation project.

Prague Zoo is leading the transportation of the horses using their long-standing relationship with the Czech military who are providing the aeroplanes, staff and fuel for the journey. One plane will leave from the Czech Republic and Tierpark Berlin in Germany is a hub for horses and a plane will also leave from there. Through the partnership with Prague Zoo, we’re also collaborating with Hortobagy National Park in Hungary, who have the largest collection of Przewalski’s horses outside of Mongolia, some of whom will also be reintroduced in Kazakhstan.

There’s also collaboration happening with Nuremberg Zoo who are a long standing partner of FZS and ACBK since the original idea was tabled back in 2010, and who have supported the establishment of the reintroduction centre and the kulan translocation. Some of their horses will also form part of the future herds of Kazakhstan.

Of course, our greatest and closest collaborator is the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources of Kazakhstan who, through their Committee of Forestry and Wildlife, are responsible for overseeing the full process from when the horses arrive from Europe to when they arrive in Alibi, which involves an enormous amount of logistical and legal considerations and activities. 

Przewalski’s horse in Hortobagy Hungary. Credit: Laszlo

6. How do you monitor the wellbeing and behaviour of the reintroduced horses?

For the acclimatisation period, we have developed a detailed monitoring plan, which includes animal body scores, behaviour, and health, as well as parasite checking. This will help us assess the condition of each animal and, if necessary, make interventions to improve their quality of life before they’re released into the wild. This monitoring will be provided by our rangers, who will have received all necessary training before the horses arrive. Some of the monitoring, such as animal behaviour and health checks, will be conducted on a daily basis, allowing us to react promptly if any issues arise. Other checks, such for parasites, will only need to be conducted on a monthly basis. We will also be conducting research on changes to the horses’ microbiome in the process of their re-wilding. This is an exciting research project, led by Prague Zoo in partnership with ACBK.

Some of the other, wider, monitoring that will take place is around the ecological impact of the horses on the landscape, such as changes in the density of pollinators as well as the influence of the horse reintroduction on soil characteristics.

7. What measures are in place to ensure the long-term sustainability of the Przewalski’s horse population in Kazakhstan?

As we mentioned before, the original, source population for the Przewalski’s horses was 11 individuals, and although this was 100 or so years ago, it’s thanks to the measures that have been taken to ensure correct breeding practices that we’re able to ensure the sustainability of populations within Kazakhstan. 

Genetically speaking, the way that the Przewalski’s horses have been bred in captivity has been very carefully controlled. Prague Zoo has held the Stud Book for Przewalski’s horse since it was initiated in 1959. This book shows the genetic structure of every single Przewalski’ horse in captivity, and these horses are moved around the zoos to ensure the most robust offspring are produced with diverse genetic coding, avoiding susceptibility to disease or any sort of degeneration associated with inbreeding. 

From these already well maintained source horses, the horses chosen for transportation to Kazakhstan will be even more finely selected. There are two hubs for horses within Europe; Prague Zoo and Berlin Zoo. 

These horses are spending some time in these two zoos before their transportation, having arrived in the zoos in February from across Europe. 4 will be selected from each zoo to travel to Kazakhstan. The selection will be made based on their physical condition and how they then adapt to the move from their original location to Prague or Berlin. In addition, they will be vaccinated, tested and observed for the period before loading, and even up until the last moment of loading, the horses will be observed very closely to ensure that only those that are confident and strong are selected. 

This initial process will ensure that the best horses reach Kazakhstan. From there, the sustainability of their population will be monitored in detail. Every horse has its own story and will be monitored as such in the wild. The area in Kazakhstan that the horses are introduced into is a Protected Area, there are no domestic horses within 80 km of this area, mitigating the threats of inbreeding or hybridisation. Preventative measures include installing camera traps around the villages and at watering points, installing ear tags on domestic horses to see where those herds are in the landscape, and also enhanced security, including patrols in the surrounding landscape.

The wild horses will stay in the enclosures for 1 year to acclimatise, where they’ll be fed supplementary food, such as hay, while they learn to dig for water and food during the harsh Kazakh winters. It’s not just the rewilding of the steppe but the rewilding of these zoo animals: they have to learn to return to the wild and learn the behaviours that they’ll need to survive in these incredibly harsh climates.

8. Are there plans for ongoing monitoring and management?

Yes, each horse will need to have individual notes and robust monitoring plans. Specialist staff will be permanently situated at the reintroduction centre and responsible for monitoring and evaluating the horses’ behaviour. When the horses arrive, there will be a monitoring team from Prague Zoo who have developed a specific protocol for the initial adaptation process. They’ll stay for 1 month alongside an expert from Mongolia who manages the reintroduced herds in the Gobi desert. We will also install satellite tags on the wild horses so we can monitor and track them using snowmobiles or vehicles, to enable the ranger staff to fulfil their monitoring and evaluation duties. The area we’re talking about in central Kazakhstan is very vast and remote, and so collaring will give us a better chance of keeping up with them and ensuring they stay out of trouble. 

9. How are you raising awareness among the public about the importance of Przewalski’s horse conservation?

The reintroduction of Przewalski’s horses follows strict guidelines provided by the IUCN, including on good communication with local people living in the landscape. This year, we are planning awareness raising events which will involve work with children and schools, for which Prague Zoo and ACBK have produced educational resources and colouring books to explain the differences between wild and domestic horses.

We’ll also be spending time with adults, including people from the local administration, pastoralists, and people who work and live around the Protected Area. We plan to conduct seminars and Q&A sessions with them in April, and again in October after the horses arrive.

We’ll also be inviting local government staff to come and greet the horses on arrival, and the Government of Kazakhstan is working with regional officials to spread the word.

This year we’re also designing a long term engagement programme for how we work with local people once the horses have been released. As the horses will be in the enclosure for 1 year, we have time to finalise this programme.

10. Are there considerations for expanding the project to other areas or introducing additional species?

At the moment, the reintroduction is localised to the central Kazakhstan region. In the process of doing this, we’re learning a lot about the procedures and risk management, and so this first transport will be a great experience and we’ll be able to use that knowledge in the future for other species. For example, we’ll soon be transporting a group of Kulan from south to central Kazakhstan by road. We’ll only be transporting female Kulans because the males are very difficult to transport by land, and so in order to get some males into the population we’ll bring them from European zoos, applying all the learning gained from the transport of the Przewalski’s horses. In terms of sending the horses to other parts of Kazakhstan, we’ll have to see how this transport goes.

Przewalski’s horses in Mongolia. Credit: Pises Tungittipokai

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