The Przewalski horse: overview of reintroduction initiatives (Part 11)

The idea of reintroducing Przewalski horses in the wild in East Asia, their last known historic range, materialized in the late 1970’s and the first release of horses took place in the early 1990’s. As of today, reintroduction was achieved in two out of three and one out of three Mongolian and Chinese proposed sites, respectively.

Hustai National Park Logo

Hustai National Park‘s symbolic logo representing Takhis

Inge and Jan Bouman, together with Mongolian scientist Tserendeleg Jachin, were the pioneers of Takhi reintroduction. They created the Foundation for the Preservation and Protection of the Przewalski Horse[1] in Rotterdam in 1977 and launched the Khustain Nuruu Project. It took over a decade to enhance the genetics of Takhis, which had become largely inbred in captivity. In 1991, the Mongolian government established Hustai National Park for the purpose of Takhi reintroduction; it was then approved UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2002. Situated 100 km south-west of Ulaanbataar, the 50,000 ha area (excluding buffer zones and transition areas) was chosen for the quality and abundance of its wildlife. The horses enrolled in the project were bred in Holland and kept in semi-wild reserves where they could freely interact and form social bonds before being flown to Mongolia. Between 1992 and 2000, 84 Takhis aged 3-5 landed at Hustai and the first individuals were released into the wild in the summer of 1994.

Przewalski Horses in the wild at Hustai National Park

Przewalski Horses in the wild at Hustai National Park / Credit: Kelsey Rideout

Nowadays, some 300 horses divided in 30 harems inhabit the park[2]. The objective is to reach a population of 350, which would ensure the sustainability of the species and remains Continue reading

The Przewalski horse: the end of a wild journey (Part 8)

During most of the Holocene, men and Przewalski horses sustained a predator-prey relationship, and men gradually intruded, fragmented and degraded the grasslands where these animals lived. Takhis were eventually dislodged from the Mongolian and Chinese steppes though the details of this lengthy, complex and unmonitored process remain largely unknown. What is clear is that anthropogenic and climatic pressure became unbearable to the horses during the first half of the 20th century[1], depleteting the species below recovery level.

Map of last sightings

Map of the last sightings prior to 1969 / Source: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan Equids: Zebras, Asses and Horses by the IUCN

Their last known territory prior to extinction, i.e. south-eastern Mongolia, only represented a small fraction of their much broader historic range. Yet, even there, the horses were not at rest from human presence and activities and had to retreat to areas of the Gobi Desert, which provide poorer and scarcer vegetation and water holes year round. The horses were ill-adapted to this harsher environment[2] and their situation was further aggravated by the occurrence of unusually rough climatic events around this time and by poaching, in violation of the horse hunting ban of 1926. The species’ resilience quickly eroded as bands became smaller and sparser. Large groups were still commonly encountered in the early 1940’s, but by the end of the decade and during the next one fewer individuals were occasionally sighted in the region of Tachijn-Shar-Nuru (meaning the “yellow mountain of the wild horse”), south of the Mongolian Altai, on the border with Xinjiang[3] (see map). The end was near.

The Mongolian scientist N. Dovchin was the last witness to provide an official report of a wild living Takhi in 1969: he spotted a lone stallion near gun-Tamga, a natural spring situated in the same area as the previous sightings (see map). All attempts to locate Przewalski horses in this area and other parts of their known 20th century Mongolian and Chinese range were unsuccessful after this date, which became the official year of the species’ extinction in the wild.

Continue reading about the Przewalski horse: Part 1 I Part 2 I Part 3Part 4 I Part 5 I Part 6 I Part 7 I Part 9 I Part 10 I Part 11 I Part 12

REFERENCES – [1] Przewalski’s Horse: The History and Biology of an Endangered Species, by Lee Boyd, Katherine A. Houpt, 1994, pp 15-16. [2] Przewalski’s Horse: The History and Biology of an Endangered Species, by Lee Boyd, Katherine A. Houpt, 1994, pp 15-16. [3] Status and Action Plan for the Przewalski’s Horse, 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.

The Przewalski horse: a meat and trophy horse until the 20th century (Part 4)

The drastic climatic transformations brought by the end of the Ice Age did not durably affect wild horses. Their large 9 million km2 mid-Holocene (6,000 years ago) range suggests they had recovered by then and enjoyed thriving, though unevenly distributed populations[1]. According to archeological data from the first half of the Holocene (Mesolithic and early Neolithic periods), horse bones accounted for fewer than 10% of all kitchen garbage animal bones in Western and Central Europe against 40% on the Eurasian Steppe[2], showing that the equids were much more numerous eastwards, where they represented a primary source of meat for men as a result.

Horse husbandry took off during these times of plenitude. In the present state of research, horse domestication is generally ascribed to the Botai people who inhabited the grasslands of Northern Kazakhstan, near Astana, approximately 3,500 BC[3]. At least 77 distinct, non-Przewalski maternal lineages which already existed 10,000 years ago are represented Continue reading

The Przewalski horse: a prehistoric horse who lived through the Ice Age (Part 3)

N.B.: This clear chronostratigraphy may be helpful to situate the various dates, periods and events discussed in this article.

Equids first appeared on the earth 4-4,5 millions years ago[1] and went through tremendous evolution phases to acquire their contemporary appearance[2]. Horses originated in North America and subsequently migrated to South America and Eurasia through Beringia, which connected the continents during prehistoric glaciation periods[3]. Eurasian Steppe MapHorse populations significantly fluctuated in size over the past 2 million years in phase with colder and warmer periods[4], and the latest research suggest that climate has been “a major driving force” in megafauna population dynamics, including wild horses, over the past 50,000 years[5]. This latter period roughly corresponds to the second half of the Late Pleistocene (126,000-11,700 years ago) and is concurrent to the last glaciation commonly known as the Ice Age. During this period and until the end of the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), which lasted from 26,500 to 20-19,000 years ago[6], horse populations boomed due to the expansion of their favored open steppe-type habitat to the detriment of woodland as a result of colder temperatures and a drier climate[7]. Continue reading

The Przewalski horse: the last extant wild horse (Part 2)

A single trait―wild―defines and distinguishes the Przewalski horse from any of its congeners. In Mongolia, where it originates from, its name Takh or Takhi (монголын тахь) means spirit horse. Yet, the residents of the Haus zur Wildnis are tame, much tamer than some semi-feral and feral horses I encountered in Canada, and most people would probably not call them wild. Appearances are often misleading: their affable disposition results from decades of captivity, hence familiarity to men, and does not prejudice their wildness at all. To determine the wild trait, one must investigate the history of the species through its biology, i.e. its DNA.

Thistle Creek, Yukon, Canada

Thistle Creek in Yukon (YT), Canada / Source: click here for original map

Two DNA research cast light on the complex evolutionary history and phylogeny of the Przewalski horse within the Equus genus, which until now remained unclear. The intent of the first study[1] was to determine the genetic relationship between Przewalski and modern domestic horses through assessing levels of genetic variation on sexual chromosomes and autosomes. The second research[2] was performed on the foot bone of an equid that lived 560,000 to 780,000 years ago (Middle Pleistocene). Recently fetched from the permafrost soils of the Canadian Arctic near Thistle Creek (Yukon), the foot had been well preserved Continue reading

Spotted at the Haus zur Wildnis

While on a recent trip at the Bavarian Forest National Park (BFNP) in southeastern Germany, I visited the Haus zur Wildnis (House of Wilderness)a small zoo situated directly in the forest that keeps lynxes, grey wolves, Przewalski horses and Auroch-type cattle.

Grey Wolf at the Haus zur Wildnis, Germany

Grey Wolf at the Haus zur Wildnis, Germany. Credit: Yalakom

I could spot five grey wolves (Canis lupus) out of 12. The animals are kept in a small 4,5 ha enclosure that appears larger only because the fence is concealed by a natural bush cover. To put things into perspective, in the wild wolf territories can reach hundreds of square kilometers, like in southern and central Europe where typical ranges are comprised between 82 and 243 sq km. Size varies substantially depending on prey density, vegetation type and other factors.

Continue reading