Species reintroduction is the release of a species into the wild. Animals that were born in zoos are released back into the wild (usually at a young age) under the supervision of a team of biologists on location in the field. The animals are released in areas that belong to the species’ original habitat but where the animal is locally extinct or where its numbers have declined dramatically. A species reintroduction project often sounds a lot simpler than it is. In cases where reintroductions are possible and responsible, Burgers’ Zoo is more than happy to cooperate! This time: Przewalski’s horses return to Mongolia
The Przewalski’s horses reintroduction project to Mongolia is a unique success story to which Burgers’ Zoo contributed. Veterinarian Henk Lutten played an active role in this project and has been to Mongolia twice, travelling with the horses donated to the initiative. Jan and Inge Bouwman, together with their friend Annette Groeneveld, were the driving force behind this successful project, which we would like to give the attention it deserves in this text.
The last Przewalski’s horse was seen in the wild in Mongolia in 1967. Fortunately, a few foals had been captured and placed in zoos in the early 1900s, which meant that there was still a small population of Przewalski’s horses living in zoos. It was soon decided to start breeding them to save the species from extinction. Around 1977, there were about 300 Przewalski’s horses worldwide; in 1997, that number reached 1450. Thanks to the efforts and funding of Mr and Mrs Bouwman and Ms Annette Groeneveld, the first horses could be released into the wild in the Hustai National Park in Mongolia from 1991 onwards.
The Przewalski’s horses were moved from various zoos in Europe and America to six different semi-reserves in the Netherlands and Germany. The horses were housed at Nature Park Lelystad (Flevoland), Noorderheide (Veluwe), The Ooijpolder (near Nijmegen), The Goudplaat (North Beveland), Meppen (Germany, just across the Dutch border) and Klosterwalde (Germany, just above Berlin). They were able to produce many offspring there over many years. Stallions were regularly exchanged to ensure as diverse a genetic base as possible. Burgers’ Zoo also donated Przewalski’s horses to the project, and our veterinarian Henk Luten was the veterinarian for all Przewalski’s horses at these nature parks.
The Foundation for the Conservation and Protection of the Przewalski’s horse first conducted extensive genetic research on all available Przewalski’s horses to select those most valuable for reintroduction, to ensure the reintroduction project was carefully and meticulously based on thorough scientific genetic research beforehand. Veterinarian Henk Luten gave all horses preventive medical care and accompanied transports of horses from one nature park to another when necessary.
In 1991, the first Przewalski’s horses travelled from the Netherlands to Mongolia, where they were housed in a very large fenced area near the Hustai National Park so that they could quietly get used to their new living environment. Henk Luten personally accompanied two transports by plane in 1995 and 2005. The first trip in 1995 was particularly adventurous. Both the horses and the human passengers travelled with the Russian airline Aeroflot in an old-fashioned Ilyushin, a Russian military transport plane, without any luxury on board. All passengers (humans and horses) travelled in the cargo hold on their way to the Mongolian steppes, with the people sitting on the straw bales they brought for the horses.
After a long journey of 36 hours in total, with stops in Moscow and Novosibirsk, the Ilyushin finally landed at the airport of Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. The twelve or so Przewalski’s horses were unloaded, and the locals welcomed them almost as gods, so happy that their national symbol had returned! But they weren’t there yet; the party still had hours-long to drive from the airport in Ulaanbaatar before they arrived at the Hustai National Park. Mongolians are real horse people. They ride like no other, and their national symbol—the Przewalski’s horse—was finally back on their soil! It was a very emotional event. Not only for the Foundation for the Conservation and Protection of the Przewalski’s horse and its employees but for the entire Mongolian population, who are mainly Buddhist.
Thanks to this reintroduction project, there is now a sustainable population of Przewalski’s horses in the wild again in Mongolia! A population of horses with a good genetic make-up and good prospects. This project is a great practical example of how a zoo can help make a difference in wildlife reintroduction projects.
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