Endangered Wild Horses Return to Kazakhstan for the First Time in at Least 200 Years

The international effort, led by the Prague Zoo, released seven Przewalski’s horses to their native steppe habitat in central Asia

A takhi horse is released into the Alibi reintroduction center in the Altyn Dala in central Kazakhstan.
An endangered Przewalski's horse is released into the Altyn Dala "Golden Steppe" in central Kazakhstan. Václav Šilha / Prague Zoo

In a triumph for conservation, seven endangered Przewalski’s horses—the planet’s last truly wild horse species—have been returned to their native habitat in Kazakhstan.

The homecoming is the product of decades of efforts from biodiversity advocates and environmentalists internationally. Now, for the first time in at least 200 years, the horses—also known as takhi or Mongolian wild horses—will freely roam their native steppe in central Asia, where archaeologists have suggested humans first domesticated horses roughly 4,200 years ago.

Przewalski’s horses were first documented by Western researchers in the late 19th century, and at that time, they could only be found in Mongolia. Over the next decades, human activity brought the horses to the brink of extinction. Some of their population was taken into European and North American zoos, and in the 1960s, the species was declared extinct in the wild.

The captive breeding population of Przewalski’s horses was only 13 individuals in 1947, and all members of the species today are descended from that group. Now, some 2,000 of the horses live in captivity, and the Prague Zoo has become an international leader in their reintroduction to central Asia. The zoo has organized the return of several horses to Mongolia. And now, the creatures are back in Kazakhstan.

“These are the first wild horses which have touched soil in the steppes of central Kazakhstan in hundreds of years,” Miroslav Bobek, the director of the Prague Zoo, tells Reuters David W. Cerny. “We still have a long way to go, but this was a historic moment.”

After a nearly 30-hour journey, the first three takhi were released in central Kazakhstan
After long journeys from Prague and Berlin, seven total horses were released into a preserve in Kazakhstan's steppe. Miroslav Bobek / Prague Zoo

Three horses—a stallion and two mares—were the first to make the journey, a roughly 15-hour odyssey from the Prague Zoo with stops in Istanbul, Turkey, and Baku, Azerbaijan. Originally, a fourth horse was scheduled to join them, but it sat down before the flight and had to be unloaded—a challenge unique to the complex logistics of organizing air travel for horses.

“He was just a little dizzy returning, but he is fine now,” Filip Mašek, a spokesperson for the Prague Zoo, tells the Guardian’s Sophie Kevany. “These horses have to stand for the entire journey—they can’t sit down, mainly because their blood needs to circulate properly … the horses will only survive if they stand all the way.”

The three horses were carried in an aircraft belonging to the Czech air force and touched down on the morning of June 4 in Arkalyk, a city in northern Kazakhstan. Four more horses, all mares from Berlin, joined the first group shortly after.

Then, the full herd of seven horses was transported south for another eight hours to the Altyn Dala nature reserve’s Wild Ungulate Reintroduction Center, where they will stay for about one year to acclimate to the environment.

“There, they will be monitored and the work will be carried out by veterinarians and scientific workers,” Vera Voronova, the CEO of the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan, tells the Astana Times’ Assel Satubaldina. “Of course, we will consider how to form groups among these horses. They will continue to be monitored even after their release [into the wild].”

Initial accounts of the animals’ welfare are positive: The horses are healthy, roaming and even beginning the process of mating, reports BBC News Frances Mao. Over the next five years, the zoo aims to transport a total of 40 Przewalski’s horses to central Kazakhstan.

The names of the six mares are Tessa, Wespe, Umbra, Sary, Zeta II, and Ypsilonka. The stallion is named Zorro.

“This is an endangered species returning to their ancestral lands, a species which went extinct in the wild in the 1960s, last seen in Mongolia … so it’s just marvelous … a miracle,” Mašek tells BBC News. “We are still responsible the fact this wild horse disappeared and now we can sort of reverse that and give it back to nature.”

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