Prague Zoo is busy putting animals back where they belong
It’s not on the same scale as a Jurassic Park-type of animal resurrection. But for more than 50 years, Prague Zoo has quietly been repatriating animals back to their homelands across the globe.
“The role of all zoos is not only to keep animals in captivity, but to support wildlife,” says Evžen Kus, zoologist and chief of the documentation department at Prague Zoo. “We’ve sent lynxes to France, oryx to Tunisia, bush dogs to Venezuela, Cape buffalo to South Africa and bearded vultures to the Austrian Alps, among others.”
Prague Zoo is probably best known for its reintegration work with Przewalski horses, a breed of small, strong wild horses named for Russian Colonel Nikolai Przewalski. Once populous along the Chinese-Mongolian border, their number was reduced to about 50 in the wild by the end of World War II.
Kus recently returned from a trip to the Hustai National Park in Mongolia, where zoos from around the world have been active in reintroducing Przewalski horses. He inspected the park’s new acclimation buildings, visited horses that have been returned to the wild and met with the Mongolian State Commission for Endangered Species.
“We have a long tradition of working with Przewalski horses,” says Kus. “The first one came to the zoo in 1932. After World War II, there were only two breeding stations left, ours and one in Munich.”
Today, Prague Zoo manages a breeding farm for Przewalski horses about 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of the city, in Dobrejov; it also holds the official studbook for the breed. Working with a consortium of other zoos led by the Foundation for the Preservation and Protection of the Przewalski Horse, a Dutch organization formed in the late 1970s, Prague Zoo has helped rebuild the population worldwide to more than 1,800, about 600 of which are in Mongolian and Chinese acclimation centers and reservations.
Hit and miss
“In the beginning it was depressing,” Kus says of early efforts to repatriate the Przewalski horse. “Mistakes were made and horses lost their lives. We were giving them freedom, but freedom is tough. About 50 percent of the horses died, mainly due to climate change, parasites and wolves.”
Wildlife managers now know that it’s better to return younger mares and stallions, no more than 2 or 3 years old, because they acclimate better. Kus says the conditions in the acclimation centers are good; horses need be there only 10 to 12 months before being released. The centers are key to the horses’ survival, as they give the animals time to adjust to natural conditions in a semiwild environment.
Three other animals currently undergoing intense reintegration efforts at Prague Zoo are the barn owl, the souslik and the European bison. The natural homelands of these animals are Central Europe, and, for a variety of reasons, their populations in the wild have been declining.
“About 20 years ago, all over Europe, the population of the barn owl began to decrease rapidly, and no one knows why,” explains Kus. “We keep new owls in the Czech Republic, releasing them in central Bohemia.”
The success rate for the owls is only about 50 percent. But, as Kus says, “Any action is better than no action.”
The European bison is the biggest animal in Central Europe, and has not been seen in the wild since World War I. German and Polish zoos have taken the lead in breeding and releasing them, and, for the past three years, Slovakia has been reintroducing them as well. Prague Zoo sent two bison to Slovakia last year, and has plans to send another this year.
The souslik, or ground squirrel, is native to the Czech Republic, especially in the Troja area, where the zoo is located. But that’s only dramatized the drop in the animal’s population. “Last year’s hard winter saw a decline in population of almost 80 percent in some areas,” says Kus. “We have built an area for them to live and are awaiting the official permit for breeding the species — which is necessary, because they are a critically endangered mammal in this country.”
Cookies for critters
One of the biggest challenges facing repatriation programs is funding.
“”It costs about 800,000 Kc [$36,415] a year to operate the exhibition space and breeding farm in Dobrejov for Przewalski horses,”” says Kus. “To transport one horse to Mongolia costs 20,000 euros [$25,600/565,000 Kc].”
Opavia, a Czech cookie and cracker company, runs a fundraising campaign to aid these programs. Through the end of this month, the company is donating 10 hellers for every Tatranky cookie sold. “The money will be used to build breeding facilities and to cover costs of transporting and monitoring animals in the wild,” Kus says.
Prague Zoo was able to turn its popular gorilla reality TV show, The Revealed, into a fundraising bonus last year, raising more than 90,000 Kc in the first phase. That money was earmarked to adopt four gorillas currently living in a conservation station in Cameroon.
The particular breed or species doesn’t matter to Kus; he believes zoos have a responsibility to all animals, whether they’re in captivity or in their natural surroundings.
“All zoos have programs to help [endangered] animals,” he says. “We can show their beauty and how they live, but we need to support them in the wild, too. Fifty years ago, we took them out of the wild. Now we export them back.”