Four rare wild horses were flown to Mongolia as part of the Prague Zoo's efforts to reintroduce the endangered species to its native habitat.
After a 6,000-kilometer (3,700-mile) flight aboard a military plane, three mares named Kordula, Cassovia and Lima, and a stallion named Matyas, will be transported another 280 kilometers (175 miles) by truck to the western Mongolian reserve of Khomiin Tal. There they will join a herd of more than 20 already reintroduced by a French group.
The Przewalski horses once inhabited the grasslands of central Asia, but became extinct in the wild in the late 1960s and early 1970s as hunters on the Chinese-Mongolian border shot them in great numbers and spreading agriculture and livestock populations forced them off their traditional grazing land.
"The arrival of our young mares and the stallion should revive the local population," Prague Zoo director Miroslav Bobek told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
First described in 1881 by Russian zoologist I. S. Poliakov, who named them after Russian explorer Nikolai Przewalski, the horses are smaller than the domestic animals, with a sandy brown coat and faintly striped legs, while the mane is short and erect.
Several hundred live in reserves in China and Mongolia in the wild, while hundreds are kept in semi-reserves, including eight mares and seven stallions at the Prague Zoo's station in Dolni Dobrejov, some 60 kilometers (40 miles) south of Prague in an area known as the Czech Siberia for its severe winters.
"They have ideal conditions here," said Lenka Kardova, a zoo keeper who has taken care of the animals with her husband Jaroslav since the 15-hectare (37-acre) station was established in 1993. "They have plenty of space and there're no crowds of visitors to disturb them here," she said.
On Thursday, Kardova watched a vet tranquilizing one of the mares, Cassovia, with a blow gun. After blood samples were taken, keepers positioned the animal in front of a crate. The 250-kilogram (550-pound) horse only reluctantly entered the Czech- and Mongolian-flag-marked box, in which each of the four was to make the long trip.
For Kardova it was tough to see the animals leaving for good, but she knew it was in their interest.
"That is where they belong and they should feel good there," she said. "It may take a long time but I believe they'll do well. They're wild and they should remain so."
Thursday marked the first such transport organized by the Czechs, but the Prague Zoo has made efforts to save the horses since its founding in 1932, keeping a breeding herd from the start. In 1959, the zoo was chosen to keep the records on all of the animals born in captivity or taken from the wild since 1899.
During World War II, Nazi soldiers shot dead a key breeding herd in Ukraine, decreasing their number in captivity to just around 40. Only two breeding herds remained after the war, in Prague and Munich, but there have since been successful breeding program relying on captive animals.
International programs, mostly involving Dutch, Swiss and German wildlife organizations, have made efforts to reintroduce the species, first into Chinese national parks in the second half of the 1980s and later into Mongolia. However, due to financial and organizational problems, the last transport was organized in 2007, prompting the Prague Zoo to act itself for the first time, Bobek said.
It is of pressing concern: During a tough 2009-10 winter, almost 100 horses died or disappeared from another Mongolian reserve, Takhin Tal, Bobek said.
"The Przewalski horse is still very vulnerable in China and Mongolia," Bobek said. "It's a necessity to transfer more animals from captivity."