Back from the brink

Przewalski´s horses near the Altai mountain range
Photo of Przewalski´s horses near the Altai mountain range 1

In its latest Red List assessment IUCN has downgraded the extinction risk category of Mongolian wild horses from risk category “critically endangered” to “endangered”.   Chris Walzer and Petra Kaczensky from the Research Institute of Wildlife Ecology of the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna have been working on ensuring a successful re-introduction of Przewalski´s horses in Mongolia´s Gobi desert for many years. 

Przewalski´s horses, known as Takhi in Mongolia, had already gone extinct in the wild – the last free ranging wild horse had been sighted in the Gobi desert, now the location of the Great Gobi B Strictly Protected Area, in 1968.  1992 marked the start of a scientifically guided re-introduction programme.  Over several years individual horses that had been bred in European zoos were flown in and re-introduced to the wild.  They now make their home in two protected areas, together with their Mongolia-born descendants.   As recently as 2008 IUCN changed the Takhi´s status from “extinct in the wild” to “critically endangered”, so it counts as a big success that in 2011 they were already assessed as “only” endangered.  By now it seems safe to assume that the Mongolian Takhi population´s  re-establishment is long-lasting,  even if there are setbacks now and again (e.g. high mortality in years of extreme winters).  At a research station in Takhin Tal at the border of the Great Gobi B Strictly Protected Area that was originally established in 1992 with support from the Austrian Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water 2, scientists are researching the behaviour, needs and habitat of wild horses and other species.  The research is being coordinated by Prof.Dr. Chris Walzer and Dr. Petra Kaczensky in co-operation with the International Takhi Group 3, the National Park administration, and the National University of Mongolia in Ulaan Bataar (NUM ) 4

Since the 1960s the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has been putting together the so-called Red List 5, which assesses different animal and plant species according to their extinction risk.   Species that are categorised as “CR” (critically endangered, with an extinction risk of more than 50% over the next few years),  „EN“ (endangered) and „VU“ (vulnerable) are most at risk.  

Unfortunately the Przewalski´s horse success story is a rare one.   Many other species are in dire straits:  for example, 25% of all mammal species  are considered endangered on the latest Red List.   „Even though we are very happy about our success with the Przewalski´s horse re-introduction, it is not desirable to let things deteriorate to the point where extremely costly, complicated breeding and re-introduction efforts become necessary to save a species from extinction,” says Chris Walzer.  It is not feasible, either technically or financially, to breed and re-introduce all endangered species.  More promising is timely action, such as the establishment of protected areas and the maintenance of natural spaces and structures in multi-purpose landscapes that are “permeable” for wildlife,  and  suitable science-based measures to reduce threats to fauna and flora.

(Web release 16.12.2011)


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