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Rare Wild Horses Brought Back From The Brink Of Extinction
Environmentalists are always reminding us
about the growing number of threatened and
endangered species in the world. But the
story of Przewalski ("shaw-vol-ski") horses
is a success story that shows how we can
sometimes save a species from extinction.
Thanks to decades of effort by zookeepers,
wildlife biologists and others interested in
conservation in Europe, North America and
Australia, growing herds of the oldest and
only remaining truly wild horse species again
roam the grassy Mongolian Steppe, in a
150,000-acre national preserve set aside
primarily for re-establishment of the
"original" wild horse.
Przewalskis are considered by some
scientists to be the wild ancestor of all
domestic horses. The Mongolian breed was
once so close to extinction that scientists had
all but given up on saving it. At the end of
World War II, only 12 Przewalskis remained
in captivity, mostly in zoos (three studs and
nine mares).
Credit for discovering the species goes to
Russian naturalist Col. Nicolai Przewalski,
who first observed them in 1878 while
exploring Mongolia for the Czar.
The sturdily built animals differ from
domestic horses in appearance and in
genetics. Genetically, they have 66
chromosomes, while domestic horses have
only 64. Crosses with domestic horses are
fertile and have 65 chromosomes.
In appearance, Przewalski horses have stiff,
upright manes, like zebras, and no forelock.
Their jaws and skulls are thicker than those
of domestic horses. Their tails extend from
the body a short distance before long tail hair
begins. They stand 12 to 14 hands and are
typically dun or beige-brown, with a lighter
colored muzzle and a darker mane and tail,
and a black stripe extending over the back
from mane to tail. They also have stripes on
their legs.
To save the rare breed, a private
organization called the Foundation Reserves
for the Przewalski Horse (FRPH) was formed
to reintroduce the species back to its native
habitat. Funds were raised to increase the
captive-born herd and to find a safe reserve
in which to release horses back into the wild.
With so few of the horses surviving in the
mid 20th century, an international stud book
and registry was established. Careful
breeding records were then kept and horses
were exchanged between captive herds in
order to avoid excessive inbreeding and
maintain genetic diversity in the species.
The effort to increase the size of the captive
herd proved successful. Since 1992, several
small groups of captive-bred horses from
Holland and the Ukraine have been shipped
to Mongolia for release into a 150,000-acre
national park established primarily for
reintroduction of the Przewalski horse. In
May of last year, 20 horses, the largest group
yet, were transported to Mongolia from The
Out in the far reaches of the reserve, the
first generation of horses born in the wild
have begun to break off from their herds to
form new groups.
While European zoos have been at the
center of the Przewalski's horse breeding
efforts, a number of American zoos also have
played a role in saving the species. The Bronx
Zoo, the Catskill Game Farm (near Kingston,
New York) and the San Diego Zoo have
breeding herds which can be seen by the
public. The National Zoo's Conservation and
Research Center in Front Royal, Virginia,
also has a herd, but it is not open for public
Contact: FARM SHOW Followup,
Foundation for the Protection and
Preservation of the Przewalski Horse,
Boomdik 43, 3286 LD Klaaswaal, The
Netherlands (E-mail: frph@antenna.nl;
Website: www.treemail.nl/takh/); or, on the
Internet, look up the Smithsonian National
Zoo Conservation Resource Center at
www.si.edu/crc, click on animals.

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2002 - Volume #26, Issue #3