What can be done with vast former-military lands once the soldiers have left? This question was asked by ecologists from Czechia that have recognized the potential in a deserted area, originally used by the Russian army. Instead of leaving it to the mercy of invasive plants, the conservationists decided to look into the past and bring back the species that have been extinct for hundreds of years.
When you listen to the ecologists, the return of wild horses, bison and aurochs to Czechia seems like a miracle. In 2015, the non-profit organization Ceska Krajina (The Czech Landscape) established a protected area in Milovice, a small town just an hour by train from the capital city of Prague. Since then, the animals have changed the reserve beyond recognition.
Surprisingly, wild horses, tanks and soldiers have something in common. All of them share the ability to put stress on the land and cause it ceaseless changes that create diverse spaces for various organisms. Moreover, the grazing of large ungulates protects the steppe from invasive plants and opens it up to a more miscellaneous mosaic of species. In Milovice, herbs that used to be oppressed came into bloom and attracted a variety of butterflies, insects and mammals, some of which are endangered in the area.
Furthermore, scientists claim that birds rediscovered their behavioral patterns that they had lost in the past due to the wild horses’ extinction. Thanks to the reintroduction of the large herbivores, the land in Milovice became a part of Natura 2000 - a network of protected natural areas defined by the European Union.
Choosing the right genes
Before their reintroduction, the animals were precisely chosen by scientists. DNA analysis showed that the closest relative to the native Central European wild horse is the Exmoor pony. Whereas all horses were killed or domesticated in Czechia, their wild relatives were able to survive in isolated areas in Britain. Nowadays, the Exmoor pony is even rarer than the giant panda but its population is flourishing in their new home.
The natural reserve hosts two more rare species - European bison and aurochs. The population of bison has been eradicated from the European wilderness but some did survive in captivity and conservationists are making efforts to return them to the wild. Aurochs were even less fortunate than bison as the last of their kind was killed in the 17th century. The animals in Milovice were back bred in order to resemble the original species in appearance, size, behaviour and manner of grazing.
The Milovice project is unique as it keeps all of these three species in the same area. This combination of ungulates cannot be found anywhere else in the world. Moreover, as each of the herbivores grazes different kinds of plants, they keep the local flora diverse.
Must the miracle face a backlash?
The whole project seems to be a miraculous cure for this piece of Czech land. The populations of endangered wild horses and other large ungulates are expanding and thanks to the return of other species to the reserve, the biodiversity is rising enormously. Moreover, the animals provide a great opportunity for the region. Milovice might not be the most beautiful town in Czechia, however, the project definitely has the potential to attract a good number of tourists and boost development in the area. Local political representation already speaks about some infrastructure which should be built in order to support eco-friendly tourism.
With all these positive effects, is it possible that the reintroduction of wild horses could face any kind of backlash? Authors of the project have already reported on some poaching attempts. According to their claims, the falling price of the former military proving ground had put it in the spotlight of some developers, who had planned to buy the land below cost. The project ruined their plans as it raised the value of the area and helped to establish its status as a Special Area of Conservation defined by the European Union. Even tourists pose some threat to the animals as they tend to feed them despite the ban. Through their actions, two wild horses have already ended up in hospital with colic.
Re-establishing our relationship with wilderness?
Surprisingly, some sort of backlash comes from environmentalists as well. They do not doubt the beneficial effect of the ungulates on the reserve; however, they question the larger environmental impact as the protected area is very limited. Although tourists might watch the wild horses through the fence with excitement, our society is no longer capable of accepting big ungulates running free in the woods. In such closeness to human dwellings, wild animals might even pose a danger to their inhabitants. True environmental impact would require a change in our values, and an adaptation to life with a wilderness which cannot be controlled and locked behind a fence.
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