National Zoo scientists and veterinarians are working with the Cologne Zoo and the Wild Horse Breeding Centre (WHBC) in Xinjiang, China, to monitor and protect a reintroduced population of Przewalski’s horses in northwestern China. The species went extinct in the wild in the 1960s, but with the transfer of horses from Western zoos in the 1980s, the WHBC eventually established a captive population of more than 150 horses. In 2001, the WHBC began reintroductions to the 1.7 million hectare Kalameili Nature Reserve (KNR) located near the WHBC. In 2008, the World Conservation Union reclassified the species as critically endangered.
There are serious challenges to creating a self-sustaining wild Przewalski’s horse population in the area, which include marginal habitats within reintroduction sites, competition with livestock for available grazing pasture, and interbreeding with domestic horses.
Local Kazak herders depend on the KNR for pasture during the harsh winters when they bring thousands of livestock into the reserve along with domestic horses used for transport. In an attempt to find win-win scenarios that benefit both wildlife and local people, National Zoo scientists and their colleagues have held training workshops and undertaken community surveys in the areas surrounding the KNR to determine the current socio-economic needs of local herders and to develop ideas for alternative livelihood strategies.
In order to monitor the released horse groups, Zoo veterinarians deployed satellite tracking collars on a few selected animals. The collars record horse movements and emit a signal that helps field staff to locate them in the field, allowing staff to observe horse behavior and assess their health and status. Zoo scientists use location data from the collars combined with other spatial data in a Geographic Information System (GIS) to map horse movements, determine their habitat requirements and assess potential threats.
Long-range objectives include conducting post-release monitoring and ecological studies and improving restoration and management strategies, as well as building capacity for our colleagues in China. The ultimate goal is to help ensure establishment of a self-sustaining, free-roaming population of Przewalski’s horses within the KNR.