JOUR FIXE with Chris Walzer
Beyond Success – Wild Asses, Explosives and Satellites: Landscape-Level Research for Conservation in the Mongolian Gobi
The Przewalski’s horse (Equus f. przewalskii) was extinct in the wild by the mid-sixties of the past century. The species
only survived due to captive breeding from 13 founder individuals. In 1992 a reintroduction program (www.savethewildhorse.org)
was initiated in the Great Gobi B Strictly Protected Area in southwestern Mongolia. During it’s initial years, the project
concentrated exclusively on P-horses. In the past decade activities have expanded significantly.
The ecological project start point can be summed up as follows: i) species is extinct in the wild, ii) severe bottleneck, iii) practically no ecological data prior to extinction, iv) released into an extremely harsh, highly variable and poorly understood environment. The ecological knowledge constraints were compounded by i) highly emotional species, ii) simultaneous and competitive projects, iii) logistic nightmare, iv) non-scientific basis in planning phase.
By the late 1990s project leadership and management was overhauled with research and scientific data firmly integrated into the decision-making process. Early scientific input concentrated on determining causes of death and low reproductive rates. P-horses have been fitted with ARGOS and GPS-ARGOS collars in order to determine home range and habitat preferences. Simultaneously the Mongolian wild ass and the wolf have been studied with these methods in the shared habitat. Satellite-based technologies provide the backbone for all habitat related project issues. At the onset data collection was restricted to the Eastern part of the Gobi B. Subsequently the spatial scale encompasses the entire Gobi Region in Mongolia and Northern Xingjian in China. Research has also focused on the role, needs and possible impacts of local semi-nomadic herders that use the protected area. Capacity building and training workshops have been initiated. In 2007 a trans-boundary project in collaboration with the Xingjian Institute of Ecology and Geography of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, was initiated to support rural communities of nomadic pastoralists living in the trans-boundary area of the Dzungarian Gobi, in China and Mongolia.
There is no consensus on when a reintroduction program is deemed successful. Clearly viewing the self-sustainable re-establishment of a population as a successful end-point is at best a short-term approach, constrained by time (today and now). Comprehensive interdisciplinary monitoring and research was and is the foundation for management strategies and decisions in this project. However, a self-sustaining financial base in conjunction with dedicated training and empowerment of local scientists and residents constitute essential prerequisites for the project’s future. Defining success and thereby inferring an end-point can easily lead to complacency compromising species persistence. As others have stated the ultimate project objective must be a constantly re-evaluated state of population persistence without intervention.
Chris Walzer, a wildlife veterinarian by training, is a creative interdisciplinary idea initiator and problem solver; critical and strategic conservationist; non-territorial worker and indefatigable optimist. Today he holds the chair for conservation medicine at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna. He has international recognized expertise working with wildlife, especially wild equids and carnivores, gained from combined years of work and research in Europe, Asia and Africa. He has a very diverse international research track record with numerous scientific publications to his name. He is sought as a consultant in wildlife matters by various organizations such as WWF, UNDP, WCS, Panthera, OIKOS, SOS Rhino, World Bank, and several other GO’s, NGOs and universities. Over the past years he has successfully managed numerous large research teams with varied funding sources such as the EU and the Austrian Research Fund.