Przewalski’s horse: The Wild Horse, Extinct In The Wild

The only truly wild species of horse in the world is returning with human help. A primitive horse breed that wandered the Asian steppes has returned to its native Kazakhstan after an absence of nearly two centuries. Six mares and a stallion, a group of the world’s last wild horses, Przewalski’s horse (pronounced shuh-VAL-skeez), or “P-horse” for short, were flown to the central Asian country on a Czech air force transport plane. “These are the only remaining wild horses in the world. Mustangs are domesticated horses that went wild,” says Filip Mašek, Prague zoo spokesperson. Przewalski’s horses (Equus przewalskii) and domestic horses (Equus caballas) differ not only in looks and temperament but in number of chromosome pairs as well.

Eight horses were meant to travel, but one horse sat down before the flight from Prague and had to be returned to the Prague zoo. “..he is fine now. These horses have to stand for the entire journey – they can’t sit down, mainly because their blood needs to circulate properly. It is a 30-hour journey in total, and the horses will only survive if they stand all the way,” said Mašek.

Receiving the gift of a horse’s skull and hide from a dignitary in 1878, the Russian Army officer and geographer Nikolai Przewalski is credited with the horse’s discovery. On return from his expedition to Central Asia the remains were examined in St. Petersburg, at the Zoological Museum of the Russian Academy of Science, whose conservator concluded that it was a wild horse, and officially named it Equus przewalskii. The breed, also known as Mongolian wild horse, Dzungarian horse and takhi which means spirit, or worthy of worship, was fully adapted to living in the steppe and desert, able to survive scarce food and a harsh climate. Przewalski’s horses once roamed the vast steppe grasslands between China and Mongolia, where horses are believed to have been first domesticated about 5,500 years ago. The first written references to takhi appeared in the year 900 when a Tibetan monk named Bodowa mentioned the horses in his writings.
Elusive and shy the Mongolian wild horse was relatively unknown until the end of the 19th century. With Western trophy hunters, zoologists at the beginning of the 20th century, transports to Europe where they were bred in zoos and road building that fragmented their population, there were only 12 wild horses left in Asia by the end of the 1950s. In 1969 there were no Mongolian wild horses that lived in their natural habitat. Attempts to capture a sample for preservation purposes between 1910 and 1960 yielded 12 foals. All remaining Przewalski’s horses are descendants of this dozen. And thanks to the work of the Bohemian Zoo in Prague, which in 1959 was charged with managing the international studbook for the species, the breed was saved, the number raised from 12 to 134 horses in six years. By 1965, there were 134 horses living in 32 zoos and private parks. Reintroductions to China and Mongolia were run mainly by Dutch, German, and Swiss organizations. The Prague Zoo joined the wild-horse return project in 1998 and 2000. To enrich their genetic variety by supplying ‘new blood’ (born in human care), nine flights of horses began in 2011 and continued until 2019 when the population stabilized. Prague zoo’s director Miroslav Bobek, says the plan is to transport a total of 40 horses to central Kazakhstan  over the next five years.

On the Prague Zoo’s website there’s a promising update from Bobek June 15, 2024:

We walked through the large acclimatization enclosure in Kazakhstan’s Golden Steppe and looked around in vain for the three Przewalski’s horses that we released here. Finally, we noticed a movement in the distance. But it was only a solitary saiga…. And then, to my delight, three horses’ heads emerged from the tall reeds at the watering hole. Zorro, Ypsilonka and “my” Zeta II. All three Przewalski’s horses looked at us, they came closer as if they wanted to get a better look at us, and measuredly ran away. After two days and three nights they were at home in the enclosure…. the return to Arkalyk made us feel how local people appreciate our project. When I went out to have an espresso, guests in the coffee shop recognized me, started asking me questions and taking photos with me. When one of the soldiers went to have a haircut, he didn’t have to pay anything because he brought wild horses. And when my colleagues visited a local museum, they got free entry as well as the guide. The return of the wild horses aroused enormous interest in Kazakhstan.

See videos of their release, below. It is truly magical to watch.

It’s estimated that now there are around 1,500 Przewalski’s horses (most of them live in the wild). They’re still shy, skittish, vigilant, distrustful of humans — people do not make them feel safe. But as the Prague zoo’s director said in a press release “This is the beginning of a whole new chapter in the story of the last wild horse on the planet.”

Today, those horses live in Central Asian steppes in herds of 6-16 horses. All herds graze on the native vegetation. During long and harsh winters, the horses use their hard hooves designed for difficult terrain, to dig under the snow in search of grass. Their digging increases biodiversity by spreading seeds in their dung and when they dig up plants, they help the water get down into the soil. They also fertilize the steppe with their dung.
Przewalski’s Horses are the only surviving subspecies of wild horse in the world and they’re a testament to the resilience of nature and the positive impacts of human intervention when done right. An apt quote from Sir David Attenborough on Global Rewinding Alliance’s homepage: “To restore stability to our planet, we must restore its biodiversity, the very thing that we’ve removed. It’s the only way out of this crisis we’ve created – we must rewild the world.” So true.

 

Click on Video Below to watch on YouTube.

1 Comment on "Przewalski’s horse: The Wild Horse, Extinct In The Wild"

  1. One of the more uplifting stories pertaining to animals. ❤ Thank you.

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