A herd of Critically Endangered Przewalski’s horses are under threat from illegal poaching, according to scientists.
The herd is located in the Chernobyl exclusion zone in the Ukraine, where 31 individuals were released into the wild in 1998 and 1999. The horses were taken from a Przewalski’s horse reserve and from a local zoo, and were released to help restore and enrich the biodiversity of the area.
The Przewalski’s horses initially seemed to be doing well, with 86 foals born in the zone between 1998 and 2007. According to a review published in the Bulletin of Moscow Society of Naturalists, the population peaked at 65 individuals in 2003 and 2004.
Vulnerable herd under threat
Unfortunately, this vulnerable herd has since been almost halved by illegal poaching, with over 70% of deaths from 2004 to 2006 being caused by human hunters. As well as threatening the survival of the herd, this drop in numbers may also increase the risk of inbreeding.
“Many people in this part of Ukraine are very poor,” said Professor Tim Mousseau, a biologist from the University of South Carolina who visits the Chernobyl exclusion zone at least twice a year. “So access to a readily available supply of horsemeat is tempting for people.”
Mousseau also questioned the wisdom of releasing the vulnerable horses into a contaminated area.
Last true wild horse
The last true wild horse, Przewalski’s horse was driven to extinction in the wild in the 1960s as a result of hunting, habitat loss and competition with domestic livestock. Fortunately, captive breeding and reintroduction efforts now mean that a number of populations of Przewalski’s horse have been re-established in the wild in its native Mongolia.
However, like many of these reintroduced populations, the Przewalski’s horses at Chernobyl still face further threats from habitat loss and potential hybridisation with domestic horses. The herd at Chernobyl has not been counted for the past three years, and it is unclear how many of these Critically Endangered wild horses now remain.
Find out more about the conservation of Przewalski’s horse at the Foundation for the Preservation and Protection of the Przewalski Horse.
Liz Shaw, ARKive Species Text Author