The Przewalski horse: an object of European curiosity from the 19th century (Part 5)

General Nikolai M. Przevalski

Russian Colonel Nikolai M. Przewalski. His name is sometimes ortographed “Przhevalsky” or “Prjewalski” / Source: The Long Riders’ Guild

In 1879, Colonel Nikolai M. Przewalski (1839-1888), a notorious Russian explorer and naturalist sent to Tibet by Tsar Alexander II of Russia, was presented with a Takhi hide and skull upon returning from his journey. Both animal parts were sent for examination to the Zoological Museum of the Academy of Science in St Petersburg where zoologist I. S. Poliakoff identified the Asian Wild Horse as a new species within the Equus genus and gave it its scientific name Equus ferus przewalskii in 1881[1]. Another notable report came from Grigory and Michael Grum-Grzhimailo, two Russian brothers who came upon Takhi bands in the Dzungarian Basin (Xinjiang) on their voyage across western China in 1889-1890. They shot a mare and three stallions whose hides and skulls together with an incomplete skeleton were again sent to St Petersburg. The hunters observed the equids closely and commented: “Wild horses keep in bands of no more than ten, each herd having a dominant stallion. There are other males, too, but they are young and, judging by the hide of the two-year old colt that we killed, the dominant male treats them very cruelly. In fact, the hide showed traces of numerous bites.”[2]

Przewalski hunted by Grigory and Michael Grum-Grzhimailo

Przewalski hunted by Grigory and Michael Grum-Grzhimailo in the Dzungarian Basin / Source: N/A

The re-discovery of the Przewalski horse awoke eager and conspicuous curiosity in the West owing to a then more favorable context marked by the recent formulation of the theory of evolution by Charles Darwin (in 1859), the birth and booming of paleontology during the 19th century and enthusiasm about prehistory supported by the unearthing of numerous vestiges in Europe. The species became a study case of utmost interest to the scientific community which was under the assumption that all wild horses had long gone extinct: “At the time when Poliakoff’s paper appeared, zoologists had settled down to a firm belief that no true wild horses existed, or indeed had existed for a very long time, since Sanson and Pietrement had concluded that all primitive wild horses had disappeared in prehistoric times. (…) it had become a matter of faith with many naturalists that all the wild horses of Asia were sprung from the common Russian country horses turned loose for want of fodder during the siege of Azov in 1697.”[3] Living remnants of the Pleistocene era, Przewalski horses represented an unexpected window onto prehistoric times.

Carl Hagenbeck

Carl Hagenbeck (1844-1913) / Credit: Atelier Theod, Reimers, Hamburg – this image is in the public domain

Takhis also appealed to animal collectors like Baron Friedrich von Falz-Fein (Russia)[4] or Duke Herbrand Arthur Russell (UK) who mandated renowned wildlife merchant Carl Hagenbeck (Germany) with the task of bringing them specimens. Expeditions were rapidly organized to this purpose. In his book Von Tieren und Menschen (1909), Hagenbeck recalls the preparation of one such venture to the Kobdo Basin (Mongolian Altai) and gives an account of the brutal method used to abduct foals from their natural environment and snatch them from the herd: “It is a habit of the creatures to rest for some hours during the daytime in the vicinity of the drinking-place. The Mongolians were instructed to seize this opportunity of stalking them with their own horses. Then at a given signal, the whole company breaks into shouts and yells; and mounting their horses dash into the herd. The latter spring up in alarm and gallop off into the steppes, leaving behind them nothing but a cloud of dust. The Mongolians give chase, and after a time brown specks are seen at intervals in the dust-clouds. As the chase continues, the specks become larger and turn out to be the foals, which are unable to keep up with the older members of the herd. When at last the foals are quite worn out, they stand still, their nostrils swelling and their flanks heaving with exhaustion and terror. All the pursuers have then to do is to slip over their necks a noose attached to the end of a long pole, and conduct them back to camp.”[5] 

Hagenbeck's expedition and captive Przewalski foals

One of Hagenbeck’s expedition to capture foals in the Mongolian Kobdo Basin and some of the abducted foals / Top and bottom-right images from Von Tieren und Menschen (1909)

This modus operandi presented “but little difficulty” for men but was such a traumatic experience for the equids that many foals died during the weeks following their capture. The systematic dispersion of adults must have created a great deal of confusion among the herds, even more so when recalcitrant individuals were shot to facilitate the task[6].

Between 1897 and 1902, 53 foals thus ruthlessly removed from the wild survived the rough trip from Mongolia to Europe where they were dispersed in different European zoos and privately owned parks[7]. More expeditions took place during the interwar period but most of the animals caught perished.


Continue reading about the Przewalski horse: Part 1Part 2 I Part 3 I Part 4 I Part 6 I Part 7 I Part 8 I Part 9 I Part 10 I Part 11 I Part 12

Baron von Falz-Fein (1863-1920)

Baron von Falz-Fein (1863-1920), founder of the reserve Askania-Nova (Ukraine) / Source: N/A


REFERENCES – [1] IUCN Red List[2] IUCN Red List. Przewalski’s Horse: The History and Biology of an Endangered Species, Lee Boyd, Katherine A. Houpt, p 11. Status and Action Plan for the Przewalski’s Horse (Chapter 7), S. Wakefield et al., in Equids: Zebras, Asses, and Horses, Edited by Patricia Des Roses Moehlman, IUCN/SSC Equid Specialist Group IUCN, 2002, p. 83. [3] The Origin and Influence of the Thoroughbred Horse, William Ridgeway, Cambridge University Press, 1905, p 30. [4] Founder of the natural reserve of Askania-Nova, Ukraine. [5] Beasts and Men: Being Carl Hagenbeck’s Experiences for Half a Century Among Wild Animals, Carl Hagenbecks, p. 86. 1912 for the English translation. [6] IUCN Red List. [7] Foundation for the Preservation and Protection of the Przewalski Horse. IUCN Red List.

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