Moving Animals

This week, Monica Vasile presented a paper at POLLEN24, the Political Ecology Network’s Biennial Conference. The global conference was held in Lund, Sweden, Dodoma, Tanzania, and Lima, Peru. Vasile’s paper, “Przewalski’s Horses: Hoofing the Trail of Wildlife Conservation History,” was part of the “Animal Political Ecologies: Blindspots and Novel Approaches” panel chaired by Rosaleen Duffy.

Despite the undeniable role of animals in wildlife conservation, existing perspectives
within political ecology, history, and social sciences depict conservation efforts as solely
human-driven, sidelining the critical aspect of animal agency. In these depictions it is
humans who do the conservation work: they manage, protect, patrol borders of national
parks, breed endangered species, and cull predators. Such portrayals often obscure the
labour, skills and behaviours of animals. This presentation endeavours to bridge this gap
by drawing upon insights from the field of animal history. It argues for a paradigm shift,
positioning wildlife conservation practice as a result of complex human-animal relations,
a co-production where animals actively contribute to their own conservation. Specifically, I
analyse the reintroduction of the extinct-in-the-wild Przewalski’s horses, from zoos to the
Gobi Desert – a celebrated success story. I show how despite the conservation staff’s
strategies to manage and control the horses’ adaptation, the animals proved anything but
manageable. They responded in surprising ways. For instance, a stallion displayed
intense aggression, killing other reintroduced stallions. A mare jumped fences to give
birth. Some horses resisted independence, returning to paddocks, while others ventured
far afield. These diverse behaviours challenged and changed planned strategies.
Ultimately, it was the animals’ actions that steered the conservation project towards a
perceived success. By tracing individual horse biographies, drawing from interviews,
scientific reports and archival materials, I explore moments where animal behaviours
disrupted human expectations. I ask how did individual animals, their embodied ways of
being, knowing and becoming, drive their conservation journey?