World’s only wild horse appears to be on the rebound

przewalski-horses-on-a

Seventy years ago the world’s only wild horse, called the Przewalski’s horse, was extinct in the wild and down to fewer than three dozen animals in captivity.

Today, that number has not only swollen to some 2,000, but hundreds have been reintroduced into the wild, including six Przewalski’s horses that were recently released into a vast, 40,000-plus-acre unbroken plot of virgin steppe in Russia, near the border with Kazakhstan.

Native to China, the stocky, tan-colored horse once inhabited the Eurasian steppe, including Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

These hardy creatures enjoy rolling around in the snow, scratching their backs on the crusty surface, according to Przewalski’s horse expert Tatjana Zharkikh, who heads the Russian reintroduction project.

“They are not afraid of wind, snow, cold … If the Przewalski’s horse has enough food, it is practically invincible,” she said.

The Przewalski’s horse is considered the world’s only wild horse because it has never been domesticated, unlike some equines found in the western US that, while untamed, are descendants of domesticated animals.

This winter marks the first in the wild for the half dozen Przewalski’s horses introduced into the Orenburg Reserves, a cluster of six strictly protected nature areas, according to Agence France-Presse.

Przewalskis horse.

Przewalski’s horse.

The animals were born at a reserve in the south of France.

Other horses have been released into the wild at locations in Mongolia.

The species was discovered by Russian explorer Nikolai Przhevalsky, who described it in the 19th century. After its discovery, there was a ruthless effort to capture the animals.

“Herds were chased down to exhaustion to capture the young foals,” Zharkikh told Agence France-Press, “but in the end the process secured enough animals to save the species after they had gone extinct in their natural habitat.”

The 2,000 animals alive today are descendants of just 12 wild-caught horses. Breeding a viable population from such a limited gene pool has not been without difficulties.

Also, unlike what happens when a horse and donkey reproduce, Przewalski’s horses can breed with domestic horses and produce fertile hybrids, which are a threat the species’ gene pool.

“Even a few hybrids can cancel out all conservation efforts,” Zharkikh said. “What is the point of protection if they are just cute shaggy-haired horses rather than a species?”

“Our goal is to form a reserve of genetically pure animals,” said Rafilya Bakirova, director of Orenburg Reserves, who would like to expand the project, including working with neighboring Kazakhstan.

A wild population would only work if the protected area is much larger, Zharkikh said, 250,000 acres or more.

(Top: Przewalski’s horses on a snow-covered field in the Orenburg Reserves. Photo credit: Agence France-Press via Tatjana Zharkikh.)

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7 thoughts on “World’s only wild horse appears to be on the rebound

  1. That’s a tiny gene pool.
    I remember when the Suffolk horse was down in numbers there was debate about breeding out and then selecting back in order to widen the pool.

    • It’s odd how animals don’t seem to suffer the same impact from in-breeding, at least not that I’m aware of. If we were down to one dozen humans, it would seem that there would ultimately have to be a lot of cousins marrying cousins for things get back to any where near a sustainable level. And if television has taught me anything, that’s a no-no.

  2. I’m a big believer in gene mixing. It makes for healthier species of plants, animals, and humans. The idea of “genetic purity” leads to all kinds of health problems in “pure bred” animals such as dogs and horses.

    “Survival of the fittest” would determine whether “impure” progeny could survive in that climate. The caveat, of course, is “if they have enough to eat.” If they are fed by human intervention, they may as well be domesticated. Also, if these were raised in the south of France, human intervention has already softened them (presumably).

    • Well, doesn’t gene mixing in this case create a different animal? And I can’t say that I prefer a mule over a horse, even though the former is the creation of the mixing of genes of a horse and donkey. I think survival of the fittest comes ensuring a varied breeding population within species, not necessarily introducing similar species.

      • Survival of the fittest means interbreeding to produce fertile offspring, not like donkey and horse, but horse and another horse outside the admittedly small gene pool.

        My main point, though, is that it sounds like this breed has already undergone significant human intervention, such as being raised in southern France (with very different climate), and that food supply may be an issue without human help. The article wasn’t clear on that, so I may be wrong in my assumption.

      • I’m not certain if the animals are able find enough food to survive on their own in the wild – though I believe they can – or if the concern is that there isn’t a big enough area in which to allow them to roam where they can be away from domesticated horses. There was a good bit of misinformation about this breed from different stories I read trying to compose this post, perhaps in part because much of its modern history is tied to Russia/Soviet Union, which hasn’t always been forthcoming about facts, scientific or otherwise.

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