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.
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.)