Moving Animals

In April, Monica Vasile delivered a lecture for Environmental History Week, organised by the American Society for Environmental History.

A history of the Przewalski’s horses in the 20th century: from the zoo back to Mongolia

The talk will explore the history of science and conservation of the Przewalski’s horse since the dawn of the 20th century. Perhaps like no other species, the Przewalski’s horse has become a global species, traded and exchanged by over one hundred and fifty zoos and reserves across the globe, at the same time as it was becoming extinct in the wild in its historical range, the Dzungarian Gobi. The longest captive-breeding programme in the world, it was hailed as a prime example of how zoos can contribute to saving species from extinction. In the 1990s, reintroductions to Mongolia began, and transport after transport brought dozens of horses ‘back home’ to what were thought to be their native steppes and deserts. But the reintroductions faced challenges, and questions lingered in the minds of the scientists and zoo-breeders involved: How did captivity shape the species and how is captivity going to influence the reintroduction? Can a population captive-bred for so long return successfully to the wild? Would these horses, with their bottlenecked genetics and their behaviours skewed by confinement, be able to make it ‘back’ to a self-sustaining wild population? Tracking the complexities of lifeways on the edge of extinction, the talk will examine the decades of breeding and the challenges of reintroduction, focusing on how conservation unfolds in practice.

Organizer: Anastasia Fedotova, Institute for History of Science and Technology, St. Petersburg, Russia
Discussant: Drew Swanson, Georgia Southern University, US