“A horse is a thing of such beauty. . .none will tire of looking at him as long as he displays himself in his splendor”
By the early part of the twentieth century, huge numbers of Przewalski’s foals had been captured by exotic animal traders, the most going to a German merchant named Carl Hagenbeck. They were shipped to Asian and European zoos and private collectors. The horse had been described by Colonel Nikolai Mikhaylovich Przewalski, a Russian geographer, only twenty years earlier. Once word was out, they all wanted one.
Carl Hagenbeck, almost single-handedly, managed to decimate most of the herds of the world’s only extant species of truly wild horse. Although Przewalski’s horse had been over-hunted for centuries, the species had never before experienced this sort of devastation. Very few foals survived capture and the arduous journeys they were forced to make. And the methods for capture and transportation were truly heart-breaking.
Mongolian tribesmen were employed to capture the horses. Upon realisation that the adult horses were too fast for them, the tribal horsemen were instructed to target the foals. These foals needed to be very young for the plan to succeed. Fast horses were used to chase the herds. The chase soon became too much for the foals, who then failed to keep up with their elders. If resistance was shown by any adult horses who turned back to defend the foals, they would be killed or dispersed. Fresh horses would then be used to round up the exhausted foals, most of which were not yet weaned. The foals were then hog-tied and put in sacks over camels for the first stage of transportation.
Once captive, the young foals were fed sheep’s milk, which resulted in a high rate of mortality. The captors then rethought their plan and used domestic mares, whose own foals had been taken from them, to feed the next batch of foals they captured. This appeared to be effective and the foals are mares were made ready for further transportation.
The prolonged trip the young foals faced was horrendous. Moved to Kobdo on foot they would then, after a short rest, be tied to their newly-adopted mothers and forced to travel over three hundred miles on foot to Bysk. From there they travelled by train across Siberia to Europe. Depending on their destination, some were then placed on boats and kept in the hold with the cargo. From initial capture to final destination, these trips lasted eight or nine months. Most of the foals died en route.
The scattered remaining herds left roaming the steppes of Asia and Europe fell victim to human settlement, cultivation and competition for grazing and water with domestic livestock. Further deprived of both food and water by nomadic tribesmen, they were gradually driven further away from their natural habitat. Then conflict between Russia and China in the 1950s saw militia groups slaughtering herds, en masse, for meat for their troops. Added to that atrocity, during World War II, German soldiers obliterated an entire Ukrainian herd – the most viable of all the remaining herds. By now the animals were desperately struggling for survival.
Furthermore, climatic change brought about some harsh winters in the mid-twentieth century and many horses were simply unable to survive such severe weather conditions. In 1967, an expedition from the Mongolian University found five living animals in the Altai Mountains. The following year a mare with a foal, a single stallion and two young horses were discovered in different locations within the same area. No further Przewalski’s horses were ever seen in the wild again. After over twenty thousand years, an entire species had been eradicated.
Unconfirmed reports suggest a few individuals were roaming in isolated areas, but they too soon disappeared. A further unconfirmed report suggests the last wild Przewalski’s horses were seen drinking from a spring in the Dzungarian Gobi Desert in 1980. These reports were thought too improbable to be credible and dismissed, and Przewalski’s horse was considered, by most authorities, to be extinct in the wild.
At this point in time, approximately two hundred and fifty Przewalski’s horses could be found in fifty zoos and private collections across the world.
Although the species has continued to survive in zoos, conditions have been far from ideal. Apart from the obvious lack of vast spaces, as the The Foundation for the Preservation and Protection of the Przewalski Horse so rightly points out, enclosures were often too small and adequately grassed areas were not provided. Lack of regulation involved in keeping wild animals in captivity abounded in the 1980’s, which, quite frankly, was not that long ago. These and other animals were swopped haphazardly between zoos and other establishments without any regard to inbreeding and genetic diseases. This species, and others, suffered considerably because of lack of policy.
But the story of Przewalski’s horse is no longer one of gloom and despair.
Though not all captive breeding programmes are what they seem, and many are simply a cover for commercially orientated, profit-making organisations, The Foundation for the Preservation and Protection of the Przewalski Horse provides a heart-warming story of success. This genuine organisation was founded with only the interests of the species at heart. Moved by the animal’s demise in the wild, the founders, the late Jan Bouman and Inge Bouman, were determined to assist the recovery of these majestic wild creatures. The Foundation also established a computerised stud book to halt inbreeding by committing to increased exchanges of stock between zoos throughout the world. The Foundation even started advising zoos on breeding Przewalski horses. At that point, the stock offered by many zoos was far too diluted to be useful; through necessity, selection needed to be approached with extreme care and zoo policies changed dramatically.
With the financial support of the Netherlands’ branch of the WWF, the Foundation was later able to buy non-related stock from a number of zoos. The descendants of animals originally taken as exhibits were now unknowingly participating in a programme to bring their own species back to its natural environment. The Foundation’s own breeding programme was set up, with care being taken to ensure maximum genetic diversity. Nature reserves (semi-reserves) were established, which provided semi-wild living conditions. A sort of halfway house for horses. After having lived in zoos for many years, Przewalski horses needed to learn to find their own food and to live in natural groups, acclimatising them before shipment. Foals were born within the semi-reserves adding to the stock. Small herds were put together, each consisting of one stallion and a small harem of mares.
Fifteen years after the Foundation was born, the first Przewalski’s horses were carefully and lovingly flown home to Mongolia. Here they were further acclimatised, within specific holding areas, to the weather conditions, new vegetation and natural herd living; learning how to live as wild horses before being set completely free in the park.
An appropriate part of Mongolia had already been chosen in which to release them – the Hustai (Khustain Nuruu) National Park, a beautiful steppe area rich in flora and fauna and having natural water springs. Two years later the horses were finally set free into the steppe. Sixteen horses were transported and released thus every two years from 1992 to 2002. Thirteen groups eventually roamed the steppe.
A remarkable and inspiring achievement born of the dedication and perseverance of two individual people who cared enough to travel a road fraught with problems and obstacles, but who refused to give up, making them alone responsible for saving this species. Since then, various other organisations and zoos have helped to return other captive Przewalski’s horses to their natural habitat.
Though numbers are still not large enough to remove it from endangered status, the species is thriving once more in the wild. And, because of the Foundation’s dedicated efforts, Przewalski’s horse numbers across the world have risen significantly.
Sadly, Przewalski’s horse still faces threats in the wild. The greatest being hybridisation with domestic stock and infectious diseases transmitted by domestic horses. Much care is, of course, being taken to prevent this within the protected areas, but things do happen. Wolves are known to prey on foals and have contributed to a notable number of deaths. Competition for food and water continues to remain a problem as do the more recently established illegal mining activities in the Hustai National Park. But, despite all that, the future for these now firmly re-established, magnificent, wild herds looks extremely promising.
Przewalski’s horses are stocky animals with stallions weighing up to six hundred and sixty pounds and reaching a height, at the withers, of just under fourteen hands (four feet eight inches) and a length of seven feet. Mares are just slightly smaller.
Both sexes have short, thick necks topped with a mane consisting of short stand-up hairs, making them looked as though they have been hogged. An unusual trait is the annual shedding of this mane; and further, the absence of a forelock. Dense coats vary in colour from a yellowish-russet to a pale greyish-beige. All Przewalski’s horses have a light underside with a darker back, head and neck, and dark legs. A long, dark, stripe runs down the back from the withers to the base of the tail. Heads sport white muzzles with black markings around the nostrils and dark rings around the ears. Eyes can be blue or brown.
In the wild, Przewalski’s horses live in two kinds of social groups: harem groups and bachelor groups. Bachelor groups consist of young horses, as yet without a harem of their own, but old enough to be a threat to the leader of their natal group, and older horses past their prime who have acquiesced to the stronger male and gone it alone. Harem groups are small, family groups led by one dominant stallion, and usually consist of ten mares at most and their offspring. When young stallions are mature enough, they will form harems of their own. Once relationships are established, the mares will stay with the stallion indefinitely. He, in turn, will assume the role of family/harem defender at all times.
Females are capable of reproducing until they are twenty years of age and males to thirty years. Mares are old enough to reproduce at between two and four years of age. There is an eleven-month ( 320-343 days) gestation period. Mares ready to foal will leave the group to seek a quiet place to give birth to a single foal (twins are highly unusual) weighing almost seventy pounds. On its first day on earth the foal will stand, within thirty minutes, walk, trot a little and play. Little neighing sounds can also be heard. Within a week it will be eating grass. The foal will stay within the natal group until it is old enough itself to breed. Contact between the horses is maintained visually, and communication includes a range of vocalisations and tactile movements, such as grooming, nibbling and kicking.
A few extra thoughts…
Przewalski’s horse is the only living wild horse. Other “wild” horses such as the Brumby or Mustang are feral animals descended from domestic stock which has reverted to the wild.
Przewalski’s horse once roamed freely across central Asia, China, and western Europe. Prehistoric cave paintings can be seen in France and Spain depicting the horse.
Although there have been attempts, Przewalski’s horse, pronounced “shuh-vaal-skee’, has never been successfully domesticated.
All Przewalski’s horses alive today are descended from thirteen horses captured at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Przewalski’s horse is also known as the Asian wild horse or Mongolian wild horse. The native Mongolians call it “takh” or Takhi” – the spirit horse.
Steppe, semi-desert shrubland and plains.
Originally re-introduced into Mongolia, herds can now be found in protected areas in southern Russia, Hungary and the Gobi Desert in China. An independent herd also exists within the Chernobyl exclusion zone.
What they eat
Grass and seasonal vegetation.
Hybridisation and competition for natural resources with domestic horses. Illegal mining within Hustai National Park. Disease. Foal predation by wolves.
Przewalski’s horse (Equus ferus ssp. przewalskii) is listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Endangered. It is also safeguarded under CITES Appendix I (as Equus przewalskii). It is legally protected in Mongolia where hunting has been prohibited since 1930.
Having been declared extinct in the wild by most authorities in the late 1960’s, the species was later re-introduced into Mongolia, within the confines of Hustai (Khustain Nuruu) National Park, in 1992. It was classified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN in 2008 and subsequently re-classified as Endangered in 2011.
Over time, populations have reached other reserves and numbers have increased. Przewalski’s horse has been the subject of various successful captive breeding programmes, specifically that of The Foundation for the Preservation and Protection of the Przewalski Horse, whose mission focused entirely on the eventual re-introduction of the species to the wild.