The Return of Native Nordic Fauna

A research blog exploring animal reintroduction history by Dolly Jørgensen

Category: breeds

Pamir the Przewalski and his places

When I was at the Ménagerie in Paris, which is part of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, I found a lovely children’s book in the gift shop: L’histoire vraie de Pamir, le cheval de Przewalski. The book (which you can buy here), written by Fred Bernard and illustrated by Julie Faulques, is a real reintroduction story.

The book begins by backing up in time to present the Przewalski horse as living on the steppes of Mongolia. The Przewalskis were wild, untamable horses, killed as prey by Mongols on the backs of domestic horses. Then the horses are discovered by a colonel named Przewalski in the 19th century. After the discovery scene, the text presents the capture of Przewalski horses which were shipped to zoos “in order to save the species.”

The capture of the Przwalski horses, which were then shipped to European zoos. From L'histoire vraie de Pamir, le cheval de Przewalski.

The capture of the Przwalski horses, which were then shipped to European zoos. From L’histoire vraie de Pamir, le cheval de Przewalski.

Some of the 50 horses captured at the turn of the 20th century were shipped to the Ménagerie in Paris. And now we get to Pamir, who was born in the zoo and is the great-great-great-great-great-grandson of animals caught in the wild.

After the Przewalski horses were captured, the species became extinct in the wild. But the zoo populations were carefully bred and grew in numbers, from 13 founding population animals to over 1000. In 1993, when a scientific reintroduction project was begun, the two-year-old stallion Pamir was selected for the program. He was released into a large enclosure on the Méjean Plateau in France along with horses from other zoo collections. The horses had to adapt to wild living, including finding their own food sources and reproducing freely within the herd. In 2003-4, 22 horses were then taken to Mongolia and reintroduced in their prior range — some of these were Pamir’s descendants.

It’s a beautifully illustrated book with a positive story. But as a historian thinking about belonging and reintroduction, a couple of things struck me.

First, there is a claim about the role of France as place in the story. While the book places the Przewalski horse in Asia, one page is dedicated to the horses in the caves of Lascaux in France. “The small horses have a remarkable resemblance to Pamir,” which is an ingenious way of linking this Asian species to France where the Pamir story takes place. The place of the Ménagerie zoo also matters in the story because it was here that Pamir was born — three double page scenes show him in his zoo enclosure. Placing Pamir specifically in Paris makes him all the more real and important to the French children.

Pamir in the zoo, but still wild.

Pamir in the zoo, but still wild. From L’histoire vraie de Pamir, le cheval de Przewalski.

Second, there is a continual insistence on the “wildness” of the Przewalski horse. They are “chevaux sauvages” of the plains. When Mongols tried to domesticate them “c’est impossible!” Although the image shows Pamir in the zoo, the text stresses “Pamir remains wild and very well knows how to defend himself. If he does not feel like a caress, beware!”. He moves to the enclosure to be prepared for “la vie sauvage”. It is through the reintroduction of the Przewalski horse after 100 years in zoos that we proved “it is possible to return an animal to the wild who had not previously known it.”

These are not unusual claims: everyone talks and writes about the Przewalski horse as “the last wild horse”, meaning specifically the last undomesticated horse. But I have to wonder how true that claim can be. The horses eventually reintroduced into Mongolia were descendants through many generations of animals that had only ever lived in zoos and were purposefully bred in extremely controlled ways. The stud books of the horse were carefully recorded and managed. Moreover, the horses were bred to look a particular way.

Image of some of the Przewalski horses in the early 1900s shown by Sandra Swart in a talk at ASEH 2015.

Image of some of the Przewalski horses in the early 1900s shown by Sandra Swart in a talk at ASEH 2015.

Sandra Swart from Stellenbosch University talked about this in her paper at the American Society for Environmental History meeting in March 2015. She showed a picture of four of the scraggly horses originally from Mongolia, which we can compare to the images of Przewalski horses today which shows extremely consistent animals. (See also another photo taken before 1901 of a captured animal)

Google image results for Przwalski horse

Google image results for Przwalski horse

Visual consistency is a trademark sign of intentional breeding. Kate Christen of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute also discussed this in a paper at the World Congress of Environmental History in 2014, noting that Przewalski breeding was conducted to produce offspring “conforming to their European handlers’ imagined preconceptions about wild, primitive horses such as those in the cave paintings.” If domestic animal implies one bred for a specific purpose, these horses are no less domestic than fjord horses or shires or shetland ponies. The claim of wildness is a rhetorical one to place this horse as belonging on the Mongolian steppes.

So Pamir is a story about how an animal can belong in two places at once. Reintroduction causes a shift of physically belonging from one place to another, but the ontological belonging to both places remains.

Breeds, places, and becoming less with loss

This year, I took a month-long summer holiday. It was mostly free from work obligations, but I couldn’t help always being aware of things that relate to this project on reintroduction and belonging. Several times over the course of my holiday I encountered efforts to preserve regional domestic breeds of animals. In each case, there was a concerted effort to identify the animal breed as belonging to a particular place, with the implication that the place would be diminished without it.

Poitou donkeys at the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes, Paris.

Poitou donkeys at the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes, Paris. Photo by D Jørgensen.

Take the Poitou donkey. At the Ménagerie in Paris (which is the historic zoo in town), two Poitou donkeys were on display. The very shaggy donkeys seemed content munching hay, but they must have been quite hot in the scorching summer heat of 35C+. According to the sign, the breed appeared in the Middle Ages, making it the oldest donkey type in France. Mechanisation of agriculture and the armed forces (which had both used donkeys) led to a rapid decrease in the number of Poitou donkeys. In 1977, there were no more than 44 individuals of the breed. “It was urgent to do everything possible to save the breed,” declared the sign. Because of directed breeding efforts there are now “more than 400 of these pure bred donkeys throughout the world.”

Here was an example of a domestic breed without a purpose. This type of donkey had been bred—physically shaped by the work of humans—to do certain tasks and those tasks were no longer needed. Yet, there was a desire to “save” the breed from extinction. Why? It wasn’t because the donkeys would do what they had done (after all, these are in a zoo not doing work at all). It appears that it was because the donkey represented heritage, specifically heritage of a place. This wasn’t just any old donkey—it was the Poitou donkey from the region of Poitou.

Breton Horse at the Lamballe National Stud Farm, France. Photo by D Jørgensen.

Breton Horse at the Lamballe National Stud Farm, France. Photo by D Jørgensen.

Or take the Breton horse. We saw some Bretons at the French National Stud Farm in Lamballe, Brittany. The Breton is a huge, stocky horse bred to plow the fields of Brittany. The Breton was created through a long history of breeding going back thousands of years. In 1909, a studbook was created for the Breton in order to create a register of ‘pure’ Breton bloodlines, and the book was officially closed in 1951. That means that the Breton has been strictly defined and delineated. The parents of a horse are either in this book or the horse isn’t a Breton.

But more than that, to be registered as a Breton, the foal must be born in Brittany or Loire-Atlantique (formerly part of Brittany). The place is integral to the definition of the breed. The Breton belongs in Brittany (and only there).

A Lapp goat at Mickelbo Gård, Sweden. Photo by D Jørgensen.

A Lapp goat at Mickelbo Gård, Sweden. Photo by D Jørgensen.

Or what about the Lapp goat? This goat has been bred by the indigenous Sami people living in northern Sweden and Norway. The animal park at Mickelbo Gård in Mickelträsk, Sweden, has a small herd of them. The goat is considered “an endangered Swedish native breed” so a genetic register has been started. In 2008, there were only 65 animals on the list, although by the end of 2012, 176 animals were listed. The Mickelbo herd had one small kid, so maybe the numbers are increasing. Like the Poitou donkey, the Lapp goat’s niche has led to its downfall. It accompanied the Sami reindeer herders during the summer months to provide milk for the herders. Although there are still reindeer herders, modern transportation systems as well as refrigeration create less need for a milk provider on the hoof. And yet there are people interested in keeping the breed alive, presumably as a cultural heritage object representing the north and the Sami.

Put together these examples show how much interest there is in preserving particular animals that belong to particular places. These domestic breeds are not ‘natural’ — they are the product of thousands of years of breeding efforts and their ancestors came from far away from where the animals now live. Yet, these breeds belong and are understood as a ‘natural’ part of the cultural landscape. Extraordinary efforts have been made to record the surviving ‘pure bred’ stock and encourage them to produce offspring.

While we often talk about species extinction in the case of wild species, the extinction of breeds is the concern with domestic species. There is no danger that domestic donkeys (Equus asinus) or horses (Equus ferus caballus) or goats (Capra hircus) will go extinct, but specific breeds may indeed disappear. And because those breeds are often associated with particular places, those places may become less.

I will close with one final thought. Some domestic breeds just look right in a particular landscape, and the landscape looks right with them. I knew this was true when I saw this Fjord horse on a Norwegian farm along the fjords.

Fjord horse at a farm near Sortland, Norway. Photo by D Jørgensen.

Fjord horse at a farm near Sortland, Norway. Photo by D Jørgensen.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén