A Sensational Discovery
Przewalski’s ( PREZ- val- ski’s) Horse has been known to the world of science since 1881, when it was described by I. S. Poliakov, based on a skull and hide imported from Central Asia by Colonel Nicolai M. Przhevalsky in 1879. Poliakov named the newly discovered species ‘Przewalski’s Horse’ in honor of the explorer. However, the wild horses were known to local inhabitants a long time before that. The Mongols called them takhi, the Chinese jie-ma. The expression kertag is also used, originating from the Kirghiz kher takhi.
The Przewalski‘s Horse is a smallish, stocky animal with a powerful, low-set head. The coat is sandy brown to yellowish in color, with a white belly and a short, dark brown, erect mane and brown tail. There is a dark, dorsal stripe running along the middle of the back. The coat is also dark above the hooves. Some horses have dark legs up to their knees and there can also be dark stripes on the legs. The muzzle is often white (the so-called flour nose), although dark nosed individuals have also been recorded. The winter coat is long and thick and it protects the horse from the cold conditions and icy winds of its native habitat.
In contrast to domesticated horses, where the hair grows out of the root of the tail in long continuous strands, the root of the wild horse’s tail is covered in shorter hairs.
The Przewalski‘s Horses live in 5–25 member family groups or harems. The group is headed by a dominant stallion, which protects and keeps the herd together. He moves toward danger, watched from afar by the lead mare, which gives the herd the order to run or calms them down depending on his behavior. As they begin to mature, young stallions leave the herd to form bachelor groups, from which new leaders of harems are recruited. Battles between stallions for territory or mares are often fierce and can end in death. In winter, Przewalski‘s Horses gather in larger groups.
Horses communicate using a wide range of sounds – neighing, whickering and whinnying. They have excellent vision and scent also plays an important role. Stallions can tell when a mare is in heat according to the scent of her urine and dung, as well as the standing and physical condition of other stallions and potential adversaries. The classic head-raised, lip-curling behavior of the stallion as he recognizes the smell of females in heat is called the Flehmen response. Social communication between horses also includes exchanges of grooming. Two horses will stand side-by-side, head-to-tail and groom each other’s coat and mane. This ritual keeps peace in the herd, while also reflecting the standing of individual animals in the herd.
Off to Europe
Back in the 19th century, the discovery of an unknown species of wild horse created an enormous sensation. Several hunting expeditions set off for the impenetrable regions of the Gobi Desert and Dzungaria, but the first live horses did not reach Europe until 1899, when they were brought to an animal park and nature preserve in Askania Nova in the Ukraine. Other horses reached Hamburg a year later.
A total of fifty-four Przewalski‘s Horses had been brought to various zoos around the world by 1902, but only twelve of these had offspring. In 1946, Mongolia managed to capture one more mare. In the 1970’s, when species restoration efforts were undertaken for this almost extinct species, there were only thirteen animals available for breeding. Today, the population of these horses, including those reintroduced into the wild and those in zoos, is roughly 1,880.
Prague and Its Horses
The first three Przewalski‘s Horses to arrive in Czechoslovakia came in 1921 through the efforts of Professor František Bílek. They were placed at the Czech University of Life Science farm in Netluky as a great rarity. Of the original three, one mare died, leaving the stallion Ali and the mare Minka. Four foals were born in Netluky, the fifth, a mare named Heluš, was born at the Prague Zoo, where Ali and Minka were moved in 1932.
The Prague breeding line has thus been unbroken for ninety years. No other zoo in the world can boast such success. More than one-third of all of the Przewalski‘s Horses living in the wild today has an ancestor from Prague in its lineage/pedigree.
On the Edge of Oblivion
The Second World War was a catastrophe for the Przewalski‘s Horse. In 1945, the last fifty horses remained in zoos, with breeding herds existing only in Prague and Munich. The situation of the Przewalski‘s Horses in the wild was also taking a dramatic turn. For this reason, the Prague Zoo convened the 1st International Symposium on the Preservation of Przewalski‘s Horse in 1959. In the final resolution, zoologists called for immediate action for its preservation, but it was too late. Mongolian zoologists observed the last Przewalski‘s Horse in the wild in Altai Gobi in June 1969. The fate of the wild Przewalski‘s Horse had been sealed and the preservation of the species now depended on zoos alone.
In September 1959, the Prague Zoo, the largest breeder of Przewalski‘s Horses in the world at that time, was entrusted with the publication of an international stud book of Przewalski‘s Horses, established by the prominent German zoologist, Erna Mohrová.
The book contained a list of all Przewalski‘s Horses bred from 1899, with dates of birth, deaths and an overview of offspring. The book became a guide for the creation of a new concept of worldwide breeding. With the knowledge of the pedigrees of the individual horses, it was also possible to genetically map out a comprehensive breeding program. The general pedigree book for the Przewalski‘s Horses has also been available on the internet since 2001.
In 1958, the Ukrainian cattle breeding station in Askania Nova received the mare caught in the wild in 1946 as a gift from Mongolia. The Prague Zoo managed to acquire one of her sons – the stallion Bars – in 1965. His arrival in Prague meant a new phase in efforts to save the Przewalski‘s Horse, especially from a genetic perspective. Bars sired forty-five foals in Prague and another eleven at the zoo in Munich. Today, Bars’ offspring can be found both in numerous zoos in different parts of the world and in the wild.
Preparations for the Return
When the number of Przewalski‘s Horses housed at zoos reached a total of five hundred animals in 1980, experts began to consider their return to the wild. In 1985, at the FAO/UNEP-Conference, held in Moscow, it was decided that the reintroduction of the horses into the wild was an essential factor in the conservation of this species. Private foundations from Germany and the Netherlands entered the scene and different zoos began setting up their own breeding stations, from which they gradually gathered horses to be returned to the wild.
From the Czech Siberia to the Mongolian Steppes
At the beginning of the 1990’s, the Prague Zoo built a breeding and acclimatization station in Dolní Dobřejov, in the area known as Czech Siberia. The vast paddock and natural pasture areas and the harsh climate with its long winters were a good environment to prepare the Przewalski‘s Horses for their life in the wild.
The first foal born in Dobřejov was a mare named Zeta. In June 1998, she left as a four-year old for the Mongolian Gobi Desert, where she was given the name Od (Star). She became the mother of seven foals and was the only one of her herd to survive the harsh winter of 2010.
To the Land of the Ancestors
The first transport of Przewalski‘s Horses back to the land of their ancestors took place in 1988. Their destination was the Western Chinese province of Xinjiang. Another two transports of animals to Mongolia took place in June 1992 – to the Tachin Tal station in the Gobi B Strictly Protected Area, the last refuge of these wild horses and to the Hustain Nuruu National Park not far from Ulaanbaatar. Two decades after the first Przewalski‘s Horses were returned to their homeland, over three hundred and fifty are alive in the wild today, and their numbers are slowly increasing.
Horses on the Road
The way in which Przewalski‘s Horses are moved about is fundamentally different from the manner used for the relocation of domesticated horses. While a domesticated horse can be loaded onto a transport vehicle on a halter without any problem, Przewalski‘s Horses must be driven into transport crates using funnel-like corridors, or they must be anesthetized with a dart gun and then loaded. Horses are usually transported to their destination by a motorized horse carrier, or in the case of longer distances, by air.
The Promised Land?
The former home of the Przewalski‘s Horse included the highland plains of the Altai Gobi, the Tian Shan foothills and the plains of the Dzungaria Basin. However, this seemingly harsh and inhospitable region of dry steppes and rocky semi-deserts plays host to an astonishing number of plants and animals. It’s a country of extremes. Temperatures rise to 40 °C in summer and the land is lashed by dust storms and temperatures that drop below −40 °C in the winter months.
Once the first Przewalski‘s Horse was released into the wild, experts tensely watched to see how it would adapt. The biggest problem wasn’t heavy frosts or a lack of food, but a blood parasite that caused so-called piroplasmosis. Horses from zoos had never encountered this disease and almost half the adult population in Gobi succumbed to the disease in the first few years. It was ultimately shown that young horses were best able to resist infection and thus only one and two year old animals are introduced into the wild today. Another cause of many deaths was the aggressiveness of stallions in enclosed corrals, which is why horses are now released straight into the wild on arriving at their destination.
Mongolia – The Land of Horses
For people in Mongolia, the horse is and always will be a symbol of freedom. Each year huge celebrations known as naadam take place throughout the country. Horse races, which are the exclusive domain of young boys, are also part of the festivities. The course is usually twenty to fifty kilometers long and to complete it over the difficult terrain is more than challenging. Przewalski‘s Horses have never been broken to the saddle, as the Mongols consider them sacred. An old proverb says that wild horses can only be saddled by the wind and rain.
A New Home
Europe lost its last wild horses at the end of the 19th century. Roughly one hundred years later, the idea was born to release Przewalski‘s Horses into protected areas of the European steppe. Today, small herds of these horses live, semi-wild, in southern France, Ukrainian Askania and at the Hungarian Hortobágy National Park. Since 1998, they have also been introduced to Chernobyl, into the more than 2,600 square kilometres evacuated after the disaster at the nuclear power plant. Sadly, declining numbers there are probably due to poaching, the meat probably sold for human consumption. Przewalski‘s Horses are expected to be introduced to the steppes of southern Russia near Orenburg in the near future.
Przewalski‘s Horses living in the wild face one major threat – which is that they can successfully interbreed with domesticated horses, despite the fact they have a different number of chromosomes. Crossbred animals resemble Przewalski‘s Horses more than they do the domesticated horse. The infiltration of genes from one species into the gene pool of another species, described as gene erosion, is a threat in every place where wild and domesticated horses have a chance of interbreeding.
The Przewalski‘s Horses from zoos quickly acclimatized themselves to their new environment. They can defend themselves from wolves; they’re resistant to parasites, they can withstand extremely low temperatures and they can find their own food and water. However, there is something that they can’t defend themselves against – major snow storms, which can be fatal, when buried animals are unable to move and they freeze to death. This catastrophe, known in Mongolian as dzud, hit the Gobi area in 2010 and it resulted in the death of over ninety Przewalski‘s Horses. Some horses managed to survive by instinctively finding places where the snow was blown away by the wind. Dzud was probably the cause of the disappearance of the last wild horses in Central Asia in 1968–1969.
Help from Prague
The Prague Zoo, which contributed so significantly to the preservation of the Przewalski‘s Horse in the past, continues to stay involved in the international efforts for the return of this horse to the wild. In 1998 and 2000, it sent the first horses to Mongolia and the zoo has been working with the Gobi ‘B’ National Park in Mongolia since 2006. The assistance the zoo has provided has largely been in the area of supplying technical equipment – satellite phones, binoculars, generators and laboratory supplies. In 2008, the Prague Zoo financed the construction of a local radio network which has allowed for communication with patrol teams in the field; and, in 2009, as part of the “1 Crown from Admission to the Zoo” campaign, it purchased a new off-road vehicle for monitoring herds in the wild.
The current approach of zoologists for the preservation of endangered species is their reintroduction into the wild (their native habitat) and the protection of the species in this native habitat (so-called ‘in-situ’ programs). The Prague Zoo is involved in a number of such programs and the reintroduction of Przewalski‘s Horse is one of its principal efforts. The Prague Zoo continues to publish the international stud book for Przewalski‘s Horses and is a member of the International Takhi Group for the return of the Przewalski‘s Horse into the wild. The priority effort is to prepare for the transportation of horses from Prague to enlarge the size of the herds living in the wild in the Gobi National Park. The Prague Zoo has also joined forces with the Czech Development Agency on a project for the economic and social development of the population in the Gobi ‘B’ National Park region. The successful reintroduction of the Przewalski‘s Horses into this native habitat will depend on the support and efforts of the local population of the area.