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Returning Wild Horses to the Russian Steppe

Restoring Biodiversity with the reintroduction of the Przewalski’s horse

Story by United Nations Development Programme November 25th, 2015

On 18 October 2015, six Przewalski’s horses arrived at their ancestral home on the Russian steppe, the first re-introduced specimens of the last truly wild horses. Their very existence is a triumph of international co-operation and scientific expertise. The Przewalski’s horse has been entirely extinct in the wild for nearly 50 years, and had disappeared from the Russian steppe by the late 19th century.

By the 1950s, only 12 of the horses were left on earth, all in captivity. A worldwide effort in zoos, research institutes, and nature preserves slowly rebuilt numbers of captive horses, culminating in the release of the horses into the wild. The reintroduction programme in Russia was made possible through the support of a UNDP/GEF project entitled “Improving the coverage and management efficiency of protected areas in the steppe biome of Russia” - the first large international project aimed specifically at securing the long-term conservation of Russia’s steppe biological diversity. The programme will bring additional herds of Przewalski’s horses for release into the wild in the coming years…

Unloading horses from the plane
Aven the stallion communicates with Lavender, the youngest mare
First day after arrival: Aven samples the pasture

From France to Russia

Financed by the Global Environment Facility, the project – supported by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of the Russian Federation and UNDP – made the preparations and created the infrastructure necessary for the delivery and reintroduction of the horses in the Reintroduction Centre of the Orenburg Reserve located in the Preduralskaya Steppe. The horses were donated by the Przewalski’s Horse Association: ТАKH (Association pour le Cheval de Przewalski: TAKH), located in Cevennes National Park, France. The Association has bred multiple generations of the horse on enclosed natural grassland within the park reserve.
The Przewalski’s Horse Reintroduction Programme in the Orenburg Reserve will be carried out for 15 years. By 2030, a semi-free population of 100 to 150 Przewalski’s horses will inhabit the “Preduralskaya Steppe” site.

Insofar as the UNDP/GEF project overall objective is to develop the capacity and ecologically based enabling tools and mechanisms for the consolidation, expansion, and integrated management of a system of protected natural areas at the landscape level within the steppe biome of Russia, it has supported the establishment of a new site of the Orenburg Reserve and the horse reintroduction programme as key means to ensure long-term conservation of valuable steppe habitat and restoration of its key species.

First for unloading from the aircraft are crates with Selena (L) and her son Paprika (R). Crate inscriptions are from prior use.
On board: the crates stood two in a row, fixed on the platforms with safety belts.
Horse keeper Marie Herment feeding the foal named Paprika before unloading the crates from the plane
Arrival to Orenburg: safe and sound!
Transportation of horses from the Orenburg airport to the Reintroduction Centre of the Orenburg Reserve

A Long Journey Home

When the animals arrived at their new home within the Reintroduction Centre of the Orenburg Reserve, they were released in previously built auxiliary enclosures for quarantine. The horses will spend one month in quarantine, and will then be released into acclimatisation corrals. During acclimatisation, the Przewalski’s horses will be given time to adapt to their new climatic conditions, under the close supervision of the Orenburg Reserve team. In April, construction of a fence around the entire Preduralskaya Steppe site will begin, both to protect the horses from poachers, and to prevent cross-breeding between wild and domestic horses.

Unloading crates with horses from trucks
Delivering crates with horses to the quarantine corral
The animals must be released in a group and not one by one

Long -term conservation & biological diversity

The idea to restore the wild horse population in the Orenburg region was proposed by Dr. Sergei Levykin, a researcher at the Steppe Institute of the Urals Department of the Russian Academy of Sciences, in the late 1990s. Dr. Aleksander Chibilev, Head of the Institute, a corresponding member of the Academy of Sciences, contributed additional institutional and research support. It is owing to the efforts and active participation of experts from the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution that the Przewalskyis horse rehabilitation programme for the Orenburg region was developed and approved, with the aim to create a wild population of the Przewalski’s horse in its native range in Russia, and to start using this species as a promising ecotourism attraction.
Practical implementation of the programme began in 2010, under this UNDP supported, GEF financed project. The key prerequisite for its implementation, and the major task to be accomplished by the project and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, was to establish the new site of the Reserve (“Preduralskaya steppe”) coupled with the horse reintroduction centre. The region has everything that is required to sustain and breed the Przewalski’s horse in the wild. The site consists of 16,500 Ha of prime horse habitat: virgin steppe, combined with former military training lands that have been kept fallow since 1965.

The work will be carried out jointly with global leaders in Przewalski’s horse conservation: The Przewalski’s Horse Association: TAKH (France, Tour du Valat biological station), European Endangered Programme for Przerwalski Horse (programme sponsor: Cologne zoo, Germany), Equid Taxon Advisory Group (trustee: Stuttgart zoo, Germany), International Studbook for the Przewalski horse (trustee: Prague zoo), Altyn-Emel national park (Kazakhstan), Askania-Nova biosphere reserve (Ukraine), and Khustai-Nuru national park (Mongolia).
For more information on the project, please visit:
The Reintroduction Centre, Preduralskaya Steppe, Orenburg Reserve
Footnote: Text by UNDP Russia, Natalia Sudets, Andrea Egan and David Angelson / Photos: Natalia Sudets
Orenburg Steppe, Russia