Since the 1990s, reintroduction efforts have started in Mongolia, China, Kazakhstan and Ukraine; Mongolia is the only country where truly wild reintroduced populations exist within its historic range. Reintroductions in Mongolia began in Takhin Tal Nature Reserve in the Dzungarian Gobi Desert (9,000 km2) and Hustai National Park in Mongol Daguur Steppe (570 km2) in 1994 (King and Gurnell 2005). A third reintroduction site, Khomiin Tal, (2,500 km2), in the Great Lakes Depression, was established in 2004, as a buffer zone to the Khar Us Nuur National Park in Valley of the Lakes (C. Feh pers. comm.).
All living wild horses belong to the subspecies Equus ferus przewalskii. The first visual account of Przewalski’s-type Horses date from more than 20,000 years ago. Rock engravings, paintings, and decorated tools dating from the late Gravetian to the late Magdalenian (20,000-9,000 BC), were discovered in caves in Italy, southern France, and northern Spain; 610 of these were horse figures (Leroi-Gourhan 1971). Many cave drawings in France show horses that look like Przewalski’s Horse (Mohr 1971). In prehistoric times, the species probably roamed widely over the steppes of central Asia, China, and Europe (Ryder 1990). The first written accounts originate from Tibet, recorded by the monk Bodowa, who lived around 900 AD. In the “Secret History of the Mongols”, there is also a reference to wild horses that crossed the path of Chinggis Khaan during his campaign against Tangut in 1226, causing his horse to rear and throw him to the ground (Bokonyi 1974). That the wild horse was a prestigious gift, denoting its rarity or that it was difficult to catch, is shown by the presentation of a Przewalski’s Horse to the emperor of Manchuria by Chechen-Khansoloj-Chalkaskyden, an important Mongolian, circa 1630 (Zevegmid and Dawaa 1973). In a Manchurian dictionary of 1771, Przewalski’s Horse is mentioned as “a wild horse from the steppe” (Dovchin 1961).
Przewalski’s Horse was not described in Linnaeus’s “Systema Naturae” (1758) and remained largely unknown in the West until first mentioned by John Bell, a Scottish doctor who travelled in the service of Tsar Peter the Great in 1719-1722 (Mohr 1971). His account of the expedition, “A Journey from St Petersburg to Peking”, was published in 1763. Bell and subsequent observers all located horses known at that time within the area of 85-97° E and 43-50° N (Chinese-Mongolian border). Wild horses were reported again from what is now China by Colonel Nikolai Mikailovich Przewalski, an eminent explorer, at the end of the nineteenth century. He made several expeditions by order of Tsar Alexander the Second of Russia to central Asia, aiming to reach Tibet. While returning from his second expedition in central Asia, he was presented with the skull and hide of a horse shot about 80 km north of Gutschen on the Chinese-Russian border. The remains were examined at the Zoological Museum of the Academy of Science in St Petersburg by I.S. Poliakov, who concluded that they were a wild horse, which he gave the official name Equus przewalskii (Poliakov 1881). Further reports came from the brothers Grigory and Michael Grum-Grzhimailo, who travelled through western China from 1889-1890. In 1889, they discovered a group in the Gashun area and shot four horses: three stallions, and a mare. The four hides and the skulls of the three stallions, together with an incomplete skeleton, were sent back to the Zoological Museum in St. Petersburg. They were able to observe the horses from a short distance and gave the following account: “Wild horses keep in bands of no more than ten, each herd having a dominant stallion. There are other males, too, but they are young and, judging by the hide of the two-year old colt that we killed, the dominant male treats them very cruelly. In fact, the hide showed traces of numerous bites” (Grum-Grzhimailo 1982). Current scientific review of the taxonomy of wild equids (Groves 1986) places Przewalski’s Horse as a subspecies of Equus ferus.
Przewalski's wild horse is found in the Altai Mountains of Mongolia (Denver Zoo 1997).
Biogeographic Regions: palearctic (Native )
Head-body length: 7 feet
Shoulder height: 4 feet
Tail length: 3 feet (Lowry Park Zoo)
Przewalski's wild horse is stocky with short legs and a short neck, looking very pony-like (Burton 1962). Its head is massive with a long face and a powerful jaw. The upper and lower incisors are used for cutting vegetation, while its many hypsodont cheek teeth are used for grinding. With eyes set far back in the skull, it is able to view a wide field, making the only blind spot directly behind its head. The ears are fairly long and erect, but can be moved for the localization of sounds (Lowry Park Zoo).
A stiff, erect blackish mane runs down the back. The legs are slender. The tail hairs are of graduated lengths. In the summer its pelage is short and smooth. back and sides are reddish-brown. The coloration turns to a yellowish white on its belly. In the winter its pelage becomes longer and lighter in color (Denver Zoo 1997).
Range mass: 200 to 300 kg.
Other Physical Features: endothermic ; bilateral symmetry
Habitat and Ecology
Przewalski’s Horse formerly inhabited steppe and semi-desert habitats, as most of this range became degraded or was occupied by livestock, the species became restricted to semi-desert habitats with limited water resources (Van Dierendonck and de Vries 1996). Lowland steppe vegetation was preferentially selected by horses at Hustai National Park and seasonal movements are affected by the availability of the most nutritious vegetation (King and Gurnell 2005).
Because the historic range is not precisely known, there has been much debate about the areas in which Przewalski’s Horses were last seen: was it merely a last refuge or was it representative of the typical/preferred habitat? The Mongolia Takhi Strategy and Plan Work Group (MTSPWG 1993) concluded that the historic range may have been wider but that the Dzungarian Gobi, where they were last seen, was not a marginal site to which the species retreated. Although grass and water are more available in other parts of Mongolia, these areas often have much harsher winters.
Przewalski's wild horse inhabits grassy deserts and plains in Western Mongolia, but it has been reported to have lived at elevations of up to eight thousand feet (Volf 1990).
Terrestrial Biomes: savanna or grassland
Przewalski's wild horse is an herbivore, eating grass, plants and fruit. It sometimes eats bark, leaves and buds. It is fed hay, grain and alfalfa in the zoos (Denver Zoo 1997).
Life History and Behavior
Perception Channels: tactile ; chemical
Its gestation period is from eleven to twelve months, and it gives birth to one foal during April or May. An hour after birth, the foal is able to stand and walk. It begins to graze within a few weeks, but is not weaned for eight to thirteen months. Mating and birth occurs in the same season, since females come into heat seven to eight days after giving birth (Lowry Park Zoo).
Key Reproductive Features: gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Equus przewalskii
Below is a sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.
See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen and other sequences.
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Download FASTA File
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Equus przewalskii
Public Records: 7
Specimens with Barcodes: 7
Species With Barcodes: 1
Endangered (Baillie 1996)
The only true wild horse, Przewalski's wild horse has not been seen in its natural habitat since 1968, probably partly as a result of crossing with half-wild domesticated horses and losing its distinct features. It declined drastically because of excessive hunting by people and loss of grazing and watering areas to domestic animials (Nowak 1991).
It has been kept and bred in zoos with only 200 remaining today. In the late twentieth century, Mongolia tried to reintroduce it into the wild (Britannica).
There is a Przewalski's Horse Global Conservation Plan in the works, as humans attempt to preserve the surviving genetic diversity (Swaringen et al. 1997).
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: critically endangered
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
- 1996Extinct in the Wild
- 1996Extinct in the Wild
- 1994Extinct?(Groombridge 1994)
- 1990Extinct?(IUCN 1990)
- 1988Extinct?(IUCN Conservation Monitoring Centre 1988)
- 1986Extinct?(IUCN Conservation Monitoring Centre 1986)
Date Listed: 06/14/1976
Lead Region: Foreign (Region 10)
Where Listed: Mongolia, China
Population location: Mongolia, China
Listing status: E
For most current information and documents related to the conservation status and management of Equus przewalskii , see its USFWS Species Profile
There are now approximately 306 free-ranging reintroduced and native-born Przewalski’s Horses in Mongolia (Zimmerman 2011). All Przewalski’s Horses alive today are descended from only 13 or 14 individuals, which were the nucleus of a captive breeding program (Bowling and Ryder 1987). Introgression of domestic horse blood happened not only in Halle (#229 dom.Mongol), but also in Askania Nova (#175 Domina; Bowling et al. 2003).
Between 1992 and 2004, 90 captive-born horses were transported to the Takhin Tal/Gobi B reintroduction site in Mongolia (ITG International Takhi Group, Zimmermann 2008). A further three males were translocated from Hustai National Park to Takhin Tal in 2007 (Zimmermann 2008). In 2008 there were approximately 111 free-ranging horses in this population (Zimmerman 2008, Kaczensky and Walzer 2007). In December of 2009 there were 137 individuals in the population, but due to an extremely harsh winter (dzud) the population suffered extreme mortality and by August 2010 only 49 individuals remained (Kaczensky et al. 2010, Zimmerman 2011). From 1992 to 2000, 84 horses were brought to Hustai National Park by the Foundation for the Preservation and Protection of the Przewalski Horse and Mongolian Association for Conservation of Nature and the Environment (MACNE) from reserves in Europe (King and Gurnell 2005). As of the end of 2010 this population was approximately 233 individuals (Zimmerman 2011). A third reintroduction site was started in 2004 at Seriin Nuruu in the Khomiin Tal buffer zone of the Khar Us Nuur National Park in western Mongolia (Association pour le cheval de Przewalski: TAKH). Twenty-two individuals consisting of four pre-established families and one male bachelor group were brought from Le Villaret, France between 2004 and 2005 (C. Feh pers. comm., Zimmermann 2008). In 2010, this population had 24 individuals (Zimmermann 2011).
In China, the Wild Horse Breeding Centre (WHBC) of the Department of Forestry at Kalameili Nature Reserve (KNR) in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region has established a large captive population of approximately 123 Przewalski’s Horses (January 2008, Pantel et al. 2006, Zimmermann et al. 2008). Since 2007 one harem group is roaming free on the Chinese side of the Dzungarian Gobi (Xinjiang); another 60 horses are roaming free during summer time but are returned to the acclimatization pen during the winter (Zimmermann et al. 2008).
The history of population estimates and trends in Przewalski’s Horse has been described by Wakefield et al. (2002). Since the ‘rediscovery’ of the Przewalski’s Horse for western science, western zoos and wild animal parks became interested in this species for their collections. Several long expeditions were mounted to catch animals. Some expeditions came back empty-handed and some had only seen a glimpse of wild Przewalski’s Horses. It proved difficult to catch adult horses, because they were too shy and fast. Capture of foals, with possible killing of the adult harem members, was considered the only option (Bouman and Bouman 1994). Four expeditions that managed to catch live foals took place between 1897 and 1902. Fifty-three of these foals reached the west alive. Between the 1930s and the 1940s only a few Przewalski’s Horses were caught and most died. At least one mare was crossbred with domestic horses by the Mongolian War Ministry (Bouman and Bouman 1994).
Small groups of horses were reported through the 1940s and 1950s in an area between the Baitag-Bogdo ridge and the ridge of the Takhin-Shaar Nuruu (which, translated from Mongolian, means ‘the Yellow Mountain of the Wild Horse’), but numbers appeared to decline dramatically after World War II. The last confirmed sighting in the wild was made in 1969 by the Mongolian scientist N. Dovchin. He saw a stallion near a spring called Gun Tamga, north of the Takhin-Shaar Nuruu, in the Dzungarian Gobi (Paklina and Pozdnyakova 1989). Annual investigations by the Joint Mongolian-Soviet Expedition have since failed to find conclusive evidence for their survival in the wild (Ryder 1990). Chinese biologists conducted a survey in northeastern Xinjiang from 1980 to 1982 (covering the area of 88-90° E and 41°31'-47°10' N) without finding any horses (Gao and Gu 1989). The last native wild populations had disappeared.
The number of living animals in the International Studbook was 1,872 in early 2008. Of the 53 animals recorded in the Studbook as having been brought into zoological collections in the west, only 12 contributed any genes to the current living population. Of these, 11 were brought into captivity between 1899 and 1902 and the last of them died in 1939. The twelfth founder was captured as a foal in 1947. The thirteenth founder was born in 1906 in Halle (Germany) to a wild-caught stallion and a domestic Mongolian mare, and the fourteenth founder is a female born in Askania Nova (Ukraine) to a Przewalski’s Horse stallion and a domestic female of a Tarpan type. Nevertheless, the current population is genetically very close to the original wild horses (Bowling et al. 2003). In addition to animals held in captivity and those already re-introduced, there have been a number of animals released into very large enclosures (reserves). The four largest are in Le Villaret (18.13; Massif Central, France), Buchara (19.17.1; Uzbekistan), the Hortobágy-National Park (77.81; Hungary), and the Chernobyl exclusion zone (32.37; Ukraine) (information as of January 2010, Zimmermann pers. comm.).
For the reintroduced populations, hybridization with domestic horses is the primary threat, accompanied by competition for resources with domestic horses and possibly other livestock. Wherever Przewalski's Horses come into contact with domestic horses, there is a strong risk of hybridization and transmission of diseases. Recently, illegal mining in the protected areas is an additional threat to the viability of these areas. In Hustai National Park, it has been noted that overgrazing of the buffer-zone and continued pressure on the reserve are possible consequences of the enhanced economic activity in this area (Bouman 1998); however, the second phase of the project (1998-2003) paid much more attention to sustainable development of the buffer-zone. In the western section of the Gobi National Park (Gobi B), habitat degradation by nomads and military personnel and their livestock continues; there is no core zone here that is free from human influence all year round. Infectious diseases transmitted from domestic horses, notably Babesia equi, B. caballi and strangles (infection by Streptococcus equi), are a major threat to small reintroduced populations originating from zoos (Roberts et al. 2005, King and Gurnell 2005). Predation on foals by wolves may account for a significant number of mortalities and constitutes a threat to the population growth and continued survival of this taxon (Wit and Bouman 2006, Kaczensky et al. 2004, Kaczensky and Walzer 2007). As was observed during 2009/2010, severe winters can result in significant mortality.
There is concern over loss of genetic diversity after being reduced to a very small population and maintained in captivity for several generations. Sixty per cent of the unique genes of the studbook population have been lost (Ryder 1994). Loss of founder genes is irretrievable and further losses must be minimized through close genetic management. Furthermore, inbreeding depression could become a population-wide concern as the population inevitably becomes increasingly inbred (Ballou 1994). However, correct management of the population can slow these losses significantly, as has been achieved since the organization of the regional captive-breeding programs.
Przewalski's Horse is legally protected in Mongolia. It is protected as Very Rare under part 7.1 of the Law of the Mongolian Animal Kingdom (2000). Hunting has been prohibited since 1930, and the species is listed as Very Rare under the 1995 Mongolian Hunting Law (MNE 1996). It is listed as Critically Endangered in both the 1987 and 1997 Mongolian Red Books (Shagdarsuren et al. 1987, MNE 1997), and in the Regional Red List for Mongolia (Clark et al. 2006). The taxon's entire re-introduced range in Mongolia is within protected areas. It is listed on CITES Appendix I (as Equus przewalskii).
The following conservation measures are in place:
- An International Studbook was produced in 1959, followed in the 1970s by establishment of the North American Breeders Group, which developed into the Species Survival Plan for the Przewalski’s horse. The European Endangered Species Program for this species was accepted in 1986. Many countries now cooperate in these programs to minimize inbreeding and retain genetic diversity in their horse populations.
- There are three ongoing reintroduction sites in Mongolia.
- The Status and Action Plan for the Przewalski's Horse (Equus ferus przewalskii) was produced in 2002 (see Wakefield et al. 2002), and provides a more detailed account of the history and ongoing conservation efforts surrounding the species.
- All three reintroduction sites are fully monitoring their populations and are integrating community livelihood support into their projects.
- There have been several workshops of stakeholders involved in the reintroduction of Przewalski's Horse to Mongolia (Boyd 2009). At the ‘Endangered Wild Equid Workshop’ held in Ulaanbataar in 2010 the following threats were identified: loss of population due to stochastic events (i.e. severe winter); limited habitat and resources (pasture and water); domestic horses (hybridization, disease, social stress); lack of information, appreciation / awareness, lack of knowledge; and exploitation of resources (i.e. mining). Specific actions needed for each threat category were identified and described.
Conservation measures required:
- The health of wild and domestic horses should be monitored for disease (Roberts et al. 2005). Standardized techniques should be used to monitor health, fecundity, mortality, habitat utilization and social organization of all populations (Wakefield et al. 2002), and contact between Przewalski's Horses and domestic horses should be kept to a minimum.
- A single population management approach should be developed.
- Mongolia currently has the only wild population and an action plan is needed for the country.
- The genealogy of all horses in Mongolia should be established based on individual micro-satellite data to monitor inbreeding levels, identify hybrids and plan for necessary movements of horses between reintroduction centers to maximize genetic diversity.
- An authoritative government protocol for hybrids should be developed, to be established before hybridization occurs, and to be made available in each re-introduction centre and to local people (King and Gurnell 2005).
- Further communication and cooperation between all re-introduction centres would be beneficial.
- Further training and post-graduate education of staff and biologists involved with this conservation work.
This species is one of a number which have been included in various “Pleistocene rewilding” plans. Pleistocene rewilding is the proposed practice of restoring ecosystems to their state in the Pleistocene, roughly 10,000 years ago. This contrasts the standard conservation benchmark, particularly in North America, of restoring ecosystems to their pre-Columbian or pre-industrial state. In both Eurasia and North America, the Pleistocene was characterized by much greater diversity and numbers of large herbivores and predators, including proboscidians, equids, camelids, and felidae (Donlan et al 2006; Zimov 2005). The process of restoration would involve the reintroduction of extant species in their historic range, as well as the introduction of ‘proxy organisms’ to replace the ecological functionality of extinct organisms (Donlan et al 2006).
There are three central theoretical goals to Pleistocene rewilding. In Siberia, a team led by Sergey Zimov is investigating the role of large herbivores as ecosystem engineers. It is thought that herbivory pressure could play a central role in maintaining a grass-dominated plant community, as opposed to either tree- or moss-dominated. Grasslands are known to be more stable carbon sinks than either mossy or forested tundra, due to the rapidity of their biogeochemical cycling (Zimov 2005). In principle, then, reintroducing Pleistocene fauna could have positive climate change mitigation effects. Proposals in North America have focused instead on the preservation of ecological dynamics. Proponents of Pleistocene rewilding argue that due to the strong ecological interactions of megafauna, it is likely that their extinction at the end of the Pleistocene would have caused cascading ecological disruptions lasting until the present time (Donlan et al 2006). Additionally, introduction programs could provide a new lease on life for extant, endangered megafauna species, such as cheetahs and Asian elephants (Rubenstein 2006).
Pleistocene rewilding, while headline-grabbing, is by no means the standard of modern conservation biology. There are a number of objections to the proposals of Pleistocene rewilders, summarized by Rubenstein et al (2006). The introduction of species which have been locally extinct for thousands of years, and more particularly the introduction of modern relatives of extinct species, carries many risks: the potential for invasive species, catastrophic disruption of existing ecosystems, inadvertent introduction of disease organisms, and unpredictable behavior of introduced species. Additionally, while paleoecology is a growing field, there is still a fair amount of uncertainty about the actual ecosystem functions of the Pleistocene.
Species which Zimov and his colleagues in Siberia are experimenting with bison, musk oxen, Przewalski’s horse, and Siberian tigers (Zimov 2005). Small-scale introductions have already begun in Yakutia. Donlan et al propose introducing Przewalski’s horse, Bolson tortoises, Bactrian camels, cheetahs, lions, and elephants into the Western United States (Donlan et al 2005). While some individuals of these species are present on privately owned land, there are no free-living populations in North America at this time.
- Donlan, CJ. 2005. Re-Wilding North America. Nature 436:913-914.
- Donlan CJ, Berger J, Bock CE, Bock JH, Burney DA, Estes JA, Foreman D, Martin PS, Roemer GW, Smith FA, Soule ME, Greene HW. 2005. Pleistocene Rewilding: An Optimistic Agenda for Twenty-First Century Conservation. The American Naturalist 168:660-681.
- Rubenstein DR, Rubenstein DI, Sherman PW, Gavin TA. 2006. Pleistocene Park: Does Rewilding North America Represent Sound Conservation for the 21st Century? Biological Conservation 132:232-238.
- Zimov, SA. 2005. Pleistocene Park: Return of the Mammoth’s Ecosystem. Science 308:796-798.
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Its meat has been hunted, but other than that, it has never been domesticated by man (Burton 1962).
Przewalski's horse (pronounced // shə-VAL-skee or // zə-VAHL-skee; Khalkha Mongolian: тахь, takhi; Ak Kaba Tuvan: [daɣə//daɢə] dagy; Polish: [pʂɛˈvalski]; Equus ferus przewalskii) or Dzungarian horse, is a rare and endangered subspecies of wild horse (Equus ferus) native to the steppes of central Asia, specifically Mongolia. At one time extinct in the wild (in Mongolia, the last wild Przewalski's horses had been seen in 1966), it has been reintroduced to its native habitat in Mongolia at the Khustain Nuruu National Park, Takhin Tal Nature Reserve, and Khomiin Tal. The taxonomic position is still debated, and some taxonomists treat Przewalski's horse as a species, Equus przewalskii.
Common names for this equine include Asian wild horse, Przewalski's wild horse, Mongolian wild horse, and takhi. Historical but obsolete names include true tarpan and Mongolian tarpan. The horse is named after the Russian geographer and explorer Nikolai Przhevalsky.
Most "wild" horses today, such as the American Mustang or the Australian Brumby, are actually feral horses descended from domesticated animals that escaped and adapted to life in the wild. In contrast, Przewalski's horse has never been domesticated and remains a truly wild animal today. Przewalski's horse is one of three known subspecies of Equus ferus, the others being the domesticated horse Equus ferus caballus, and the extinct tarpan Equus ferus ferus. The Przewalski's horse is considered the only remaining truly wild horse in the world. There are still a number of other wild equines, including three species of zebra and various subspecies of the African wild ass, onager (including the Mongolian wild ass), and kiang.
Many believe that the Przewalski horse is the closest relative to the domestic horse, although there have been many debates on whether the Przewalski horse has a direct linkage to the domesticated horse. Studies of the DNA diversity within the Przewalski horses have been done to see how successful their reintroduction into the wild may be. Studies have shown through multidimensional scaling (MDS) analyses that tight grouping of within most horse breeds, close grouping between related breeds, and far less grouping between mixed breeds. The Przewalski horse and the domesticated horse showed a close relationship through pairwise genetic distance and Multidimensional scaling analyses showing that the Przewalski horse is very closely related to the domesticated horse.
The Przewalski's horse was described in 1881 by L. S. Poliakov. The taxonomic position of Przewalski's horse has always been problematic and no consensus exists whether it is a full species (Equus przewalskii), a subspecies of the wild horse (Equus ferus przewalskii), or even a sub-population of the horse (Equus ferus). Studies using DNA have been inconclusive, in part due to crossing domestic horses into the Przewalski's horse as well as the limited genetic variation present in the founder population of the Przewalski's horse. A 2009 molecular study using ancient DNA recovered from archaeological finds like bones and teeth places the Przewalski's horse in the middle of the domesticated horses, but 2011 mitochondrial DNA analysis suggests that the Przewalski and the modern domestic horse diverged some 160,000 years ago. An analysis based on whole genome sequencing and calibration with DNA from old horse bones gave a divergence date of 38–72 thousand years ago. The karyotype of the domestic horse differs from that of Przewalski’s horse by an extra chromosome pair either because of the ﬁssion of domestic horse chromosome 5 in Przewalski’s horse or fusion of Przewalski’s horse chromosomes 23 and 24 in the domestic horse. In comparison, the chromosomal differences between domestic horses and zebras include numerous translocations, fusions, and inversions. Przewalski’s horse is known to have the highest diploid chromosome number among all equine species. Przewalski’s horse can interbreed with the domestic horse and produce fertile offspring (65 chromosomes).
All Przewalski horses in the world are descended from nine of the 13 (two of which were hybrids, one being from a wild horse stallion and domestic mare and the other from a wild stallion and a tarpan mare) horses in captivity in 1945. These thirteen horses were mostly descended from approximately 15 captured around 1900. A cooperative venture between the Zoological Society of London and Mongolian scientists has resulted in successful reintroduction of these horses from zoos into their natural habitat in Mongolia; and as of 2011 there is an estimated free-ranging population of over 300 in the wild. From a population of 31 horses in captivity in 1945, the total number of these horses by the early 1990s was over 1,500.
Przewalski females are able to give birth at the age of three and have a pregnancy period of about 11 to 12 months. Their reproduction process is seasonal and in Mongolia the season is towards the end of either May, June, or July. Mating stallions do not start looking for mating partners until the age of five. Instinctively, the stallion will look to create his own group of mares or else wander until he finds a group with its own leader. If the stallion finds a group of mares with its own leader, the stallion will usually fight the other leader stallion of the group. The mares will adjust and follow the victor. After birth, the foal can stand almost immediately (only taking about an hour or so) and can walk on its own. The foals drink milk from the mother mare.
Przewalski's horse is stockily built in comparison to domesticated horses, with shorter legs. Typical height is about 12–14 hands (48–56 inches, 122–142 cm), length is about 2.1 m (6 ft 11 in). They weigh around 300 kilograms (660 lb). The coat is generally dun in color with pangaré features, varying from dark brown around the mane (which stands erect) to pale brown on the flanks and yellowish-white on the belly and around the muzzle. The legs of Przewalski's horse are often faintly striped, also typical of primitive markings. The tail is about 90 cm (35.43 in) long, with a longer dock and shorter hair than seen in domesticated horses.
The hooves of the Przewalski's horse are longer in the back and have significantly thicker sole horn than feral horses. This is beneficial as it improves the performance of the hooves.
The Przewalski's horse has 66 chromosomes, compared to 64 in all other horse species.
In the wild, Przewalski's horses live in small, permanent family groups consisting of one adult stallion, one to three mares, and their common offspring. Offspring stay in the family group until they are no longer dependent, usually at two or three years old. Bachelor stallions, and sometimes old stallions, join bachelor groups. Family groups can join together to form a herd that moves together.
The patterns of their daily lives exhibit horse behavior similar to that of feral horse herds. Stallions herd, drive and defend all members of their family, while the mare often displays leadership in the family. Stallions and mares stay with their preferred partner for years. While behavioral synchronization is high among mares, stallions other than the main harem stallion are generally less stable in this respect.
Horses maintain visual contact with their family and herd at all times and have a host of ways to communicate with one another, including vocalizations, scent marking, and a wide range of visual and tactile signals. Each kick, groom, tilt of the ear, or other contact with another horse is a means of communicating. This constant communication leads to complex social behaviors among Przewalski's horses.
The Przewalski horse's diet consists mostly of vegetation. There are many plant species in a typical Przewalski horse environment including: Elymus repens, Carex spp., Fabaceae and Asteraceae. While the horses eat a variety of different plant species, they tend to favor one species during a specific time of the year. In other words, the Przewalski horses have seasonal food preferences. In the springtime, Przewalski horses favor Elymus repens, Corynephorus canescens, Festuca valesiaca and Chenopodium albuy. In early summer they favor Dactylis glomerata and Trifolium and in late summer, they gravitate towards Elymus repens and Vicia cracca. In winter, for example, the horses eat Salix spp., Pyrus communis, Malus sylvatica, Pinus sylvestis, Rosa spp., and Alnus spp. Additionally, Przewalski horses may dig for Festuca spp., Bromus inermis and Elymus repens that grow beneath the ice and snow. The Przewalski horse’s winter diet is very similar to the diet of domestic horses. Studies have suggested that in the wintertime, Przewalski horses experience hypodermis. Hypodermis is a condition in which one’s metabolic rate slows down. This means that in the winter time, Przewalski horse’s process their food slower than they do during other times of the year. Looking at the species diet overall, however, Przewalski horses most often eat Elymus repens, Trifolium pretense, Vicia cracca, Poa trivialis, Dactylis glomerata and Bromus inermis.
Water, along with grassy vegetation, is another major component of the Przewalski horse's diet. A study, conducted by K.M. Scheibe and a team of scientists, documented the water consumption of 12 female Przewalski horses that were living in a semireserve over a course of 17 months. Their results show that, on average, a Przewalski horse drinks between 2.4 and 8.3 liters of water a day, which is less than the amount of water a domestic horse drinks daily. In fact, the Przewalski horse that consumed the most water in the study drank on average 8.6 liters of water a day. This almost equals the lowest amount of water consumption for a domestic horse which is 8.4 liters a day.
In the 15th century, Johann Schiltberger recorded one of the first European sightings of the horses in the journal of his trip to Mongolia as a prisoner of the Mongol Khan. The horse is named after the Russian colonel Nikolai Przhevalsky (1839–1888) (the name is of Polish origin and "Przewalski" is the Polish spelling). He was the explorer and naturalist who first described the horse in 1881, after having gone on an expedition to find it, based on rumors of its existence. Many of these horses were captured around 1900 by Carl Hagenbeck and placed in zoos. As noted above, about twelve to fifteen reproduced and formed today's population.
The native population declined in the 20th century due to a combination of factors, with the wild population in Mongolia dying out in the 1960s. The last herd was sighted in 1967 and the last individual horse in 1969. Expeditions after this failed to locate any horses, and the species had been designated "extinct in the wild" for over 30 years.
After 1945 only two captive populations in zoos remained, in Munich and in Prague. The most valuable group, in Askania Nova, Ukraine, was shot by German soldiers during World War II occupation, and the group in the United States had died out. Competition with livestock, hunting, capture of foals for zoological collections, military activities, and harsh winters recorded in 1945, 1948 and 1956 are considered to be the main causes of the decline in the Przewalski's horse population. By the end of the 1950s, only 12 individual Przewalski's horses were left in the world.
In 1977, the Foundation for the Preservation and Protection of the Przewalski horse was founded in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, by Jan and Inge Bouman. The Foundation started a program of exchange between captive populations in zoos throughout the world to reduce inbreeding, and later began a breeding program of its own. As a result of such efforts, the extant herd has retained a far greater genetic diversity than its genetic bottleneck made likely.
Since 1986, Chinese researchers have bred Prezewalski's horses in captivity, with the program seeing over twenty years of success.
In 1992, sixteen horses were released into the wild in Mongolia, followed by additional animals later on. One of the areas to which they were reintroduced became Khustain Nuruu National Park in 1998. Another reintroduction site is Great Gobi B Strictly Protected Area, located at the fringes of the Gobi desert. Lastly, in 2004 and 2005, 22 horses were released by the Association Takh to a third reintroduction site in the buffer zone of the Khar Us Nuur National Park, in the northern edge of the Gobi ecoregion. In the winter of 2009-2010, one of the worst "dzud" or snowy winter conditions ever hit Mongolia. The population of the Prezewalski's horse in the Great Gobi B SPA was drastically impacted, providing clear evidence of the risks associated with reintroducing small and sequestered species in unpredictable and unfamiliar environments.
Since 2011, Prague Zoo has transported twelve horses to Mongolia in three rounds, in cooperation with partners (Czech Air Force, European Breeding Programme for Przewalski´s Horses, Association pour de cheval du Przewalski : Takh, Czech Development Agency, Czech Embassy in Mongolia and others) and it plans to continue to return horses to the wild in future. In the framework of the project Return of the Wild Horses it sustains its activities by supporting local inhabitants. The Zoo has the longest uninterrupted history of breeding of Przewalski's horses in the world and keeps the studbook of this species.
The reintroduced horses successfully reproduced, and the status of the animal was changed from "extinct in the wild" to "endangered" in 2005. On the IUCN Red List, they were reclassified from "extinct in the wild" to "critically endangered" after a reassessment in 2008 and from "critically endangered" to "endangered" after a 2011 reassessment.
While dozens of zoos worldwide have Przewalski's horses in small numbers, there are also specialized reserves dedicated primarily to the species. The world's largest captive breeding program for Przewalski's horses is at the Askania Nova preserve in Ukraine. Several dozen Przewalski's horses were also released in the area evacuated after the Chernobyl accident, which now serves as a deserted de facto natural preserve. In Chernobyl, the population reproduced at a high rate, reaching up to 200 individuals until poachers decreased their number to just 60 in recent years. As of 2011, it was estimated that only 30 - 40 individuals remained. An intensely researched population of free-ranging animals was also introduced to the Hortobágy National Park puszta in Hungary; data on social structure, behavior and diseases gathered from these animals is used to improve the Mongolian conservation effort.
Several American zoos also collaborated in breeding Equus ferus przewalskii from 1979 to 1982. Recent advances in equine reproductive science in the United States also have potential to further preserve and expand the gene pool. In October 2007, scientists at the Smithsonian Institution's National Zoo successfully reversed a vasectomy on a Przewalski's horse — the first operation of its kind on this species and possibly the first ever on any endangered species. While normally a vasectomy may be performed on an endangered animal under limited circumstances, particularly if an individual has already produced many offspring and its genes are overrepresented in the population, scientists realized the animal in question was one of the most genetically valuable Przewalski's horses in the North American breeding program. The first birth by artificial insemination occurred on July 27, 2013 at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.
Le Villaret, located in the Cevennes National Park in southern France and run by the Association Takh, is a breeding site for Przewalski's horses that was created to allow the free expression of natural Przewalski's horse behaviors. Eleven zoo-born horses were brought to Le Villaret in 1993. Horses born there are adapted to life in the wild: they are free to choose their own mates and must forage on their own. Such a unique breeding site was necessary to produce the individuals that were reintroduced to Mongolia in 2004 and 2005. In 2012 there were 39 individuals at Le Villaret.
The Przewalski's Horse Reintroduction Project of China was initiated in 1985 when 11 wild horses were imported from overseas. After more than two decades of effort, the Xinjiang Wild Horse Breeding Centre has bred a large number of the horses, of which 55 were released into the Kalamely Mountain area. The animals quickly adapted to their new environment. In 1988, six foals were born and survived, and by 2001 there were over 100 horses at the centre. As of 2013, the center hosted 127 horses divided into 13 breeding herds and three bachelor herds.
Reintroductions organized by western European countries started in 1990s. These were later stopped, mostly for financial reasons. Prague Zoo started a new cycle of transporting horses to the wild, which, with the support of public and many strategic partners, continues today.
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