In 1881, on the occasion of the wedding of Crown Prince Rudolf and Princess Stephanie of Belgium, Count Sweerts-Sporck published an open letter in the newspapers calling for the establishment of a zoological garden in Prague.
Probably as a result, two rather ambitious projects emerged in the next two decades. In 1891 the Committee for the Establishment of a Zoological Garden in the Royal Game Preserve (one of Prague’s parks, known in Czech as Královská obora) was constituted, but failed to materialise. Eight years later the new Association for the Establishment of a Zoological and Acclimatization Garden published a memorandum in which ten locations were proposed for developing the zoological garden. The Kinsky Garden in the borough of Smíchov was chosen, but again no Zoo came into existence. It took another twenty years before things became serious, when the Advisory Council for Mathematics and the Natural Sciences at the Ministry of Education and National Edification met and appointed a committee to take charge and prepare the foundation of Prague’s zoological garden.
Then, in 1922, land along the bank of the river Vitava in the borough of Troja was donated by farming tycoon Alois Svoboda on the condition that, amongst others, a zoological garden should be developed there. Jiří Janda, a high-school professor who – in 1904 – had ideas for developing a zoo on the river island of Štvanice, was appointed to lead the preparatory work for the establishment of the Zoo on Svoboda’s land. It took another four years for the project to materialise, but 8 hectares were fenced off by the end of 1927. In 1930 the first animals were donated, such as the lioness Šárka by the owner of Circus Rebernigg, but these had to be housed at Professor Janda’s villa in Troja because no suitable accommodations were available still at the Zoo’s construction site.
Finally, on September 28 in 1931 the zoological garden, albeit still under construction, opened to the public. Besides the arrival that year of the female wolf Lotta, the first animal to live on the newly established Zoo grounds, and the erection of Janda’s Raptor Aviary, Prague Zoo’s first Przewalski’s horses (named Minka and Ali) arrived. From then on the Zoo animal collection grew steadily with tigers, elephants, hippopotamus, rhinoceros, lions and two sea lions for instance. The latter donated by the famous Czech comedic actor Vlasta Burian. Already in 1933 the first captive breeding success was achieved with a litter of tiger cubs. While building and improvement of enclosures continued, one of the highlights in those early years was the breeding of the first captive-born Andean Condor in the world.
In 1950 Prague Zoo became a governmental organisation under the jurisdiction of the Central National Committee of the Capital City of Prague and under the supervision of the Ministry of Information and Edification. After Dr. Zdeněk Veselovský became director in 1959, leading many breeding and scientific achievements, Prague Zoo is charged in 1960 with keeping the international studbook for the Przewalski’s horse, which ranked the Zoo among the world’s leading zoological gardens.
Przewalski horse breeding
Prague zoo can be proud of its long unbroken tradition of breeding Przewalski horses, which is not equaled by any other zoo in the world. The first Przewalski horses were brought to Czechoslovakia from Halle by professor František Bílek in 1923. These first three horses were housed in the educational farm of the Department of reproduction biology of the Czech technical institute (the institute of agriculture did not exist at that time) in Netluky, nowadays part of Uhříněves, near Prague. One mare died soon, which left the stallion Ali and the mare Minka. Between 1928 – 1931 they had 4 foals. Professor Bílek exchanged three foals with zoos abroad for other animals, which were destined for the zoo in Troja that was being constructed at that time. Ali and Minka were moved to the Prague zoo from Netluky on 1 August 1932. The first foal in the zoo was the filly Heluš that was born on 21 March 1933. The bodies of Ali and Minka were preserved after their death and they can be seen in the museum of hippology in the castle of Slatiňany.
Prague gradually became one of the world’s biggest breeders of wild horses and after WWII it was one of the last two zoos which had a breeding herd. In 1959 the Prague zoo organised the 1st international symposium on saving the Przewalski horse and was appointed to keep the international studbook. It has become an extensive studbook as it contains the data on 4650 individual animals bred and born since 1899. It was the first international studbook in the world with an online version. At the end of 2005 there were 1860 Przewalski horses living all over the world. Of these not even 300 were living in the wild in Mongolian and Chinese nature reserves. Prague zoo has contributed to the reintroduction of Przewalski horses into nature reserves of altogether 15 horses. Mongolia received 8 horses, and the other 7 were sent to Ukraine and Hungary. Almost 70 % of the horses destined for reintroduction into the wild have got in their lineage an ancestor from the Prague breeding stock. From 1928 to 2005, 231 foals were born in the Prague zoo.
From the 1960s until the devastating flooding of 2002, many new species and specimens complemented the Zoo’s animal collection and as a consequence many enclosures were built or refurbished. Such as the new Pavilion of Big Mammals (for elephants, hippopotami and rhinoceroses), the new Feline Pavilion, the renovation of the polar bear and American black bear exhibits, and the African House and the Pavilion of Gorillas. Two memorable highlights in those years were the birth in 1972 of the first litter of cheetah cubs (the second captive-breeding success in the world) and the first in the world hand-reared Przewalski’s horse, 2011.
Then the Zoo experienced a severe setback with the 2002 flooding, affecting almost half of the Zoo’s area.
The flood of 2002
On 14 August 2002 Prague was affected by a flood with a size and destructive capacity that had never been witnessed before. As the Prague zoo is situated right on the banks of the Vltava River, almost half of its area was flooded. On this unfortunate Wednesday the water level reached depths up to 10 metres and more, a zoo apocalypse. More than 1,000 animals had to be rescued and were transported via the water – among them there were hundreds of animal species, from birds, big cats and monkeys to rhinoceroses, hippopotamuses and elephants. Although 1,029 animals were successfully evacuated, 134 did not survive the flood. Animals were temporarily moved to other zoos or sometimes housed at private breeders. Four sea-lions escaped, of which one, Gaston, died in Germany after a 300-kilometers long journey in the flooding river. Other animals that didn’t survive the flood were: 1 gorilla, 1 elephant, 2 hippopotamuses and 2 pigmy hippopotamuses. In fact, it is almost unbelievable that so many animals did survive. All of this, thanks to the dedicated and extraordinary effort of those people involved in the rescue under difficult circumstances.
The flood left almost half of the area in absolute havoc. More than 20 buildings and expositions were demolished and some 13 were seriously damaged. The power distribution systems was out of order. Removing mud and debris took months. The operation of the zoo was totally paralysed for some time. The garden reopened on 7th September 2002. However, most of the affected parts were not accessible for the visitors till the end of the year. The damage was estimated at 232 million CZK (± 9 million Euro).
But this misfortune initiated and required new building activities that led to many new buildings and modernised exhibits, including an Education Centre, an open-top enclosure for orangutans and gibbons, and Monkey islands. In 2004 the first pair of Komodo dragons in the Czech Republic arrived at Prague Zoo, with a first hatching of eggs in 2007. Besides all the breeding successes, improvements and modernisations, the Zoo appreciated the past by the renovation and reopening in 2011 of the Gočár’s Houses, two architecturally unique buildings from 1920s – one serves as a restaurant, the other as a gallery, educational facility and shop.
Unfortunately in June 2013, Prague Zoo had to face another devastating flood. But the 2002 experience led to better contingency plans, so they were well prepared and did manage to successfully save animals as well as property. This time the water did not reach the level of 2002 and the lower part of the Zoo was flooded for a shorter time. But most importantly, the water did not flow through the Zoo with such destructive force as it did eleven years ago. Nevertheless, the damage was big enough to reconsider the Zoo’s lower part lay-out and constructions. Lessons had to be learnt, with the main conception: small light-weighed constructions, buildings, which can be flooded without being severely damaged, or buildings designed in such a way, that they will be protected against the water level in 2002.
(Source: website Prague zoo)