China Focus: 20 years on, conservation efforts bring more endangered Przewalski's horses back to wilderness

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by Xinhua writers Lu Yifan, Zhang Xiaolong, Hou Zhaokang

URUMQI, Sept. 16 (Xinhua) -- The sight of galloping endangered wild horses at a distance rekindled Wang Zhenbiao's memories of releasing the first batch of the horses into the wild in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

"Back in 2001, we feared that the first batch of 27 released Przewalski's horses would have difficulties adapting to the wilderness in Kalamaili Nature Reserve like tracing sources of water, so we stayed there to monitor them and help them when needed," the 45-year-old said at the reserve where he had stayed for six years.

Wang, an engineer from the Xinjiang Wild Horse Breeding and Research Center, was among the first to volunteer in Kalamaili Nature Reserve in Xinjiang's Junggar Basin, one of the original habitats of the species.

The Przewalski's horse is believed to be the only wild horse species in existence today. It is listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species and is under first-class national protection.

Once extinct in China due to excessive poaching and environmental degradation, the Przewalski's horses were reintroduced to the country from Britain, Germany and the United States starting in the mid-1980s, and were raised in Xinjiang and Gansu Province.

To mark the 20th anniversary of the species' release into the wilderness in Xinjiang, a batch of 18 Przewalski's horses will be released over the next few months, according to the Xinjiang Wild Horse Breeding and Research Center, which was established in 1986 as a base to save the species from extinction.

Earlier this month, the horses were trucked to a semi-wild area in the Kalamaili Nature Reserve so that they could adapt to the new environment before being allowed to embark on a new journey.

After 20 years of experience and months of preparation, including training for horses in the wild, Wang said he is more at ease this time.

There is a visible rise in the wild horse population, thanks to decades of conservation efforts by grassroots workers like Wang who have dedicated their lives to the environmental cause and researchers from across China.


When Wang first came to the reserve in 2001, there was no electricity in the wild and the closest water supply was dozens of kilometers away, a journey Wang and his colleagues made once a week.

He would wake up at first light and drive around in the reserve covering more than 10,000 square km for hours to observe the horses through binoculars, making notes of their behaviors and locations; at night, he slept in a brick structure lit by candlelight -- this became his daily routine over the next six years.

On a winter day in 2001, when the temperature plummeted to some minus 30 degrees Celsius, Wang realized that the horses were not visible. He and his colleagues drove around the reserve for over 10 days before they found the herd 40 km away.

It took them nearly three days to bring the horses back. They were worried that the horses may freeze or starve to death as the snow was too thick for the animals to forage. "During the day, we took turns sitting on top of the jeep and scattering hay to lure them while the other person drove. At night, we slept on the haystack in the trunk," Wang recalled.

Over the years the situation has been largely improved with the concerted and unremitting efforts made by governments at various levels, grassroots institutes and universities.

The local government upgraded infrastructure in the reserve by installing monitoring devices, purchasing patrolling equipment for the staff and disbursing funds to put tracking collars on the horses.

Besides infrastructure improvement in the nature reserve and in Xinjiang Wild Horse Breeding and Research Center, the researchers raised and bred the horses in a more scientific way.

They maintain a genealogy book for Przewalski's horses tracking all new births. Before carrying out tasks such as breeding, clustering, or release into the wild, the inbreeding coefficient of the horses is computed to avoid genetic obstacles.

The horses are taken good care of. In summer, they were treated with sliced watermelons to help them relieve summer heat. Whenever a mare is about to give birth to a foal, a group of engineers and breeders would wait in the stables all night.

The veterinarian at the center conducts regular physical examinations for the horses to make sure they are healthy and sound.

Zhang Hefan, an engineer from the center, has authored seven books and over 300 proses and poems on the horses since 2005. She has also helped popularize fun facts about the species among primary and middle school students through lectures.

Since 2019, the forestry and grassland authorities have launched a host of projects to gradually ban grazing in the reserve in an effort to provide a better environment for various wildlife living there.


Years of unrelenting conservation efforts have yielded positive results.

Today, there are more than 2,000 Przewalski's horses around the world. By 2020, Przewalski's horse population in Xinjiang reached 487. The Kalamaili reserve had 274, ten times the number in 2001.

Hu Defu, a researcher with the School of Ecology and Nature Conservation under Beijing Forestry University, said the horses are in the process of returning to the wild and restoring wild populations. Its success will provide experience for other species to follow the lead.

All existing Przewalski's horses in Xinjiang come from about 24 such horses, said Yang Weikang, a researcher with Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography under the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

"It is necessary to introduce foreign genes into the species and we are exploring different ways like using frozen semen and artificial fertilization to make the population's genes as diverse as possible and strengthen their abilities in tackling extreme conditions," he added.

Yang Jianming, director of the Xinjiang Wild Horse Breeding and Research Center, said the biggest challenge currently facing wild horse conservation is how to avoid inbreeding as the provenance of this species is limited. The center tried to seek international cooperation with many countries and organizations, but the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about difficulties to this work.

"Przewalski's horse conservation cannot be accomplished overnight, and we still have a long way to go," the director said. Enditem

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