Przewalski horse back to Russia

Six Przewalski’s horses that were born and raised at a preserve in the South of France were flown to Russia and released. This kicks off a program to reintroduce the horses to a region where they haven’t been seen in over a century.

The Przewalski’s horse is named after Russian explorer N. M. Przewalski, who first described them scientifically in the late 19th century. The horse once roamed freely along the Mongolia-China border, but they were completely wiped out through hunting and loss of water sources to domestic farming and development. According to Scientific American, by 1945, their numbers were whittled down to a mere 13 individuals, worldwide.

The six wild horses that were released on the Russian steppes are wintering there on a preserve of over 40,000 acres. The chunky, tawny-colored equines are supported with oats and hay twice a week. Radio Free Europe Radio Library said in an article that the early stages of reintroduction into Russia have been very successful. This was according Tatjana Zharkikh, head of the reintroduction center in the strictly protected Orenburg nature reserves along the border with Kazakhstan.

“…This winter is unusual for the Orenburg region — a lot of snow. We’re sure that the coming winters will be much warmer and much better for horses, but now we know that we and our horses are [prepared for] such conditions.”

The Orenburg herd, consisting of a stallion, four mares and an 18-month-old colt, were donated by the Association for the Przewalski’s Horse (TAKH) in southern France, where they roamed 1400 acres of enclosed natural grassland.

“They adapt to natural conditions. They are not from a zoo, they are from a semi-reserve; that’s why they [endure] the winter very well.”

According to a story in Russia Beyond the Headlines, “the reintroduction program was the brainchild of the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution at the Russian Academy of Sciences, and the Orenburg Reserve. Its steppe territory is the historic home of the Przewalski horse, and the steppe needs this horse to survive, literally.”

Olga Pereladova, the head of the World Wildlife Fund’s Central Asian program, agreed.

“In steppe ecosystems these animals contribute to their recovery. If horses are not grazing in the steppe it deteriorates because vegetation is not trampled; overabundance of grass can cause fires.”

The goal is to have a herd of 1,000 animals in the region.

Having never been domesticated, the Przewalski’s horse is considered to be the world’s only true “wild” horse, as opposed to feral horses such as American mustangs. Przewalski’s horses behave much the same way as feral domestic horses, living in small groups comprised of a stallion with a harem of mares. Their appearance is markedly different. They have a stiff, upright mane with no forelock, shaggy fetlocks, a dark dorsal stripe and low-set tail.

DNA testing has proven that the Przewalski, although related to the modern horse, does not descend from them. An LA Times article said that DNA analysis of the Przewalski horse revealed that “the species has enough genetic variety to enable it to recover if conservation efforts can be sustained.” Eske Willerslev, an evolutionary biologist at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, said that the horse shows no signs of interbreeding with domestic horses.

“It is 100% wild. There is no domestic genetics present in that horse. Which of course suggests these guys are really worth preserving.”.

The horses have been kept under tight scrutiny since 1960, and meticulous records kept, according to the American Museum of Natural History.

“There are now five regional breeding programs for captive Przewalski’s horses in North America, Europe, Russia, and Australia. To manage the population of takhi for optimum genetic health, breeders use strategies to reduce inbreeding and ensure that rare genes do not disappear. The number of captive takhi around the world has now reached almost 2,000 individuals, and computerized records detail their genealogical relationships.”

The species, while still endangered, is considered a conservation success. Its story can give encouragement to conservationists struggling to save the Sumatran rhino, who just pulled one individual out of a region where it had not been seen for 40 years.