In the mid-1880s, renowned Russian explorer Nikolay Przewalski discovered a species of horse that the scientific community had never seen before; later named Przewalski’s horse, researchers determined that it indeed was a species all of its own and, in fact, the last truly wild horse in existence. This formidable creature survived for thousands of years by adapting to a rough environment and by escaping from modern man’s domestication. Now an endangered species, Przewalski’s horse lives in a few zoos and reintroduction sites located in Mongolia, China, and Kazakhstan.
At a glance, a viewer might mistake Przewalski’s horse for a common pony with a coarse coat; however, one cannot help noticing its fully roached mane, which stands on end much like a zebra’s. The dark tail, legs, and mane stand out against the horse’s coat, which is primarily dun, rust, or tawny in color. Ranging from a height of 4.3 feet to 8.5 feet at the withers and weighing up to 800 pounds, this horse is stocky. Its legs are short, its chest is broad, and its muscles well-defined. This ancient horse differs from domestic horses physically and mentally. Przewalski’s horse has two more chromosomes than the 64 found in domestic horses. They are intelligent in their own right, never having been altered by humans who have bred horses for specific traits, demeanors, and instincts. While other horses have been deemed “wild,” those, such as the kind found in the United States, are relatives to formerly domesticated horses. What we think of as a wild horse is actually a feral horse; somewhere in its family tree, an ancestor probably escaped from its fate on a ranch or as a team member on an exploratory expedition. Przewalski’s horses do not have a history of living or working with people. They have a strong flight response to the unfamiliar. Perceiving new objects as threats has helped the species stay alive. The Mongolian name for this animal is takhi, meaning “spirit”; this name farther separates the differences between the domestic horse and Przewalski’s horse. These creatures are wild in every sense of the word, yet today, most live in captivity at zoos or within the boundaries of monitored reserves.
Nestled between Russia and China, Mongolia is the native habitat of Przewalski’s horse. This country has one of the highest elevations in the world and some of the wildest temperature fluctuations. The high temperatures soar well above 100°, and the lows can plummet well below 0°. There are mountains and valleys, but unforested steppes cover much of the land. The Gobi Desert, one of the coldest deserts, covers much of Mongolia at its southern and eastern boarders. Typically, four inches of rainfall is all this area expects to receive annually. Along with Przewalski’s horse, the fauna of the Gobi has included wild camels, antelope, and gophers. The Gobi is no Sahara, but it does have areas of sandy desert. Its overall rocky terrain is uninviting to humans which helped Przewalski’s horse remain living in the wild until the 1960s.
Przewalski’s horse is an endangered species. Fewer than 2,000 are alive today. Their population has shrunken for a number of reasons. Hunters, disease, and little diversity in their gene pool are part of the cause. Changes in climate and habitat loss are two other key factors. A scientific community from around the world is working together to better understand all aspects of this special creature. To help it survive, groups such as those at the National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute of the Smithsonian continue researching into areas like genetic mapping and reproduction. Around the globe, population management works to keep the Przewalski’s horse alive and, places like Mongolia, where it is illegal to hunt this horse, provide a natural habitat where it can be monitored. Increasing an awareness of this species helps ensure its existence in the future.