Przewalski’s Horse: A Story of Survival

Przewalski's horse_3Photo: Pawel Ryszawa

Also known as the Takhi or the Mongolian wild horse, the Przewalski’s horse is the last true species of wild horse on Earth. Native of the steppes of China and Mongolia, the species once thrived in a territory extending over Central Asia and parts of Europe (from Russia to Germany). Despite its uniqueness, the Przewalski’s horse is endangered, with only 1,500 individuals remaining today, most of those in captivity. Yet researchers all over the world have tried their best to save this beautiful horse.

There are many wild horses running wild even today; we are all familiar with mustangs, for example – but they are simply the offspring of domesticated animals. In contrast, the Przewalski’s horse was always a wild animal, and so it has remained to this day. (One possible explanation for the incompatibility of this wild horse with the life of a domesticated animal is the fact that it has two chromosomes more than the horses with which we are more familiar.)

Przewalski’s HorsePhoto: Jairo S. Feris Delgado

Fighting for the Survival of the Przewalski’s horse

Considering what this small, stocky horse has faced, it is a wonder that it has not become extinct. The reasons for its decline, which begun in the 19th century, vary. The Przewalski’s horse has a slow rate of reproduction – the mare gives birth to a single foal after a pregnancy period that lasts one year – but more significant was its interaction with humans and their domesticated horses. For many years, Przewalski’s horses interbred with domesticated horses, which led to the destruction of their own genetic heritage.

In addition, Przewalski’s horses suffered from excessive hunting and the loss of their habitat – again, a result of human interference. The result of all this was heartbreaking. During the 20thcentury, their number was reduced to a few individuals, and in 1969 the last horse was seen in its natural environment, with the species soon after declared extinct in the wild.

Przewalski's horse_2Photo: tinali778

With only a few individuals remaining in zoos, it seemed highly unlikely that this animal would survive. In 1945, Nazi soldiers killed the Przewalski’s horses that were held in a Ukrainian natural reserve, and by the 1950s there were only 12 such horses left on the planet. However, scientists did not give them up. An intensive breeding program and the Przewalski’s horses’ own adaptability gave this species a second chance.

Today, from those few horses that were still alive 60 years ago, a precious population of 1,500 horses now thrives in different places around the world. Importantly, starting in 1992 Przewalski’s horses were gradually reintroduced to the steppes of Mongolia. Their fast re-adaptation and sturdiness together with researchers’ careful surveillance was the successful recipe that allowed this species to cross the border from “extinct in the wild” to “critically endangered” and then “endangered” as of today. Even though their genetic pool is very limited, and the problems generated by the loss of their territory are not over, chances are that our children’s children and many more generations after them will enjoy knowing that the last surviving species of wild horse is still running free on the plains of Asia.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4