Przewalski’s horse, or Dzungarian horse, is a rare and endangered subspecies of wild horse native to the steppes of central Asia. In the 15th century, Johann Schiltberger recorded one of the first European sightings of the horses in the journal of his trip to Mongolia as a prisoner of the Mongol Khan. The horse is named after the Russian colonel Nikolai Przhevalsky (1839–1888) (the name is of Polish origin and “Przewalski” is the Polish spelling). He was the explorer and naturalist who first described the horse in 1881, after having gone on an expedition to find it, based on rumors of its existence. Many of these horses were captured around 1900 by Carl Hagenbeck and placed in zoos. As noted above, about twelve to fifteen reproduced and formed today’s population.
The native population declined in the 20th century due to a combination of factors, with the wild population in Mongolia dying out in the 1960s. The last herd was sighted in 1967 and the last individual horse in 1969. Expeditions after this failed to locate any horses, and the species had been designated “extinct in the wild” for over 30 years. After 1945 only two captive populations in zoos remained, in Munich and in Prague. The most valuable group, in Askania Nova, Ukraine, was shot by German soldiers during World War II occupation, and the group in the United States had died out. Competition with livestock, hunting, capture of foals for zoological collections, military activities, and harsh winters recorded in 1945, 1948 and 1956 are considered to be the main causes of the decline in the Przewalski’s horse population. By the end of the 1950s, only 12 individual Przewalski’s horses were left in the world.
Since 2011, Prague Zoo has transported twelve horses to Mongolia in three rounds, in cooperation with partners and it plans to continue to return horses to the wild in the future. In the framework of the project Return of the Wild Horses it sustains its activities by supporting local inhabitants. The Zoo has the longest uninterrupted history of breeding of Przewalski’s horses in the world and keeps the studbook of this species. As for the endangerment of the Przewalski’s horse, the status was changed from “extinct in the wild” to “endangered” in 2005. On the IUCN Red List, they were reclassified from “extinct in the wild” to “critically endangered” after a reassessment in 2008 and from “critically endangered” to “endangered” after a 2011 reassessment.
Today most “wild” horses, such as the American Mustang or the Australian Brumby, are actually feral horses descended from domesticated animals that escaped and adapted to life in the wild. In contrast, the Przewalski’s horse has never been domesticated and remains the only truly wild horse in the world today. Przewalski’s horse is one of three known subspecies of Equus ferus, the others being the domesticated horse Equus ferus caballus, and the extinct tarpan Equus ferus ferus. There are still a number of other wild equines, including three species of zebra and various subspecies of the African wild ass, onager (including the Mongolian wild ass), and kiang.
In the wild, Przewalski’s horses live in small, permanent family groups consisting of one adult stallion, one to three mares, and their common offspring. Offspring stay in the family group until they are no longer dependent, usually at two or three years old. Bachelor stallions, and sometimes old stallions, join bachelor groups. Family groups can join together to form a herd that moves together.
The patterns of their daily lives exhibit horse behavior similar to that of feral horse herds. Stallions herd, drive and defend all members of their family, while the mare often displays leadership in the family. Stallions and mares stay with their preferred partner for years. While behavioral synchronization is high among mares, stallions other than the main harem stallion are generally less stable in this respect.
Horses maintain visual contact with their family and herd at all times and have a host of ways to communicate with one another, including vocalizations, scent marking, and a wide range of visual and tactile signals. Each kick, groom, tilt of the ear, or other contact with another horse is a means of communicating. This constant communication leads to complex social behaviors among Przewalski’s horses.
Przewalski’s Horse or Dzungarian Horse, is a rare and endangered subspecies of wild horse native to the steppes of central Asia, specifically China and Mongolia. At one time extinct in the wild, it has been reintroduced to its native habitat in Mongolia at the Khustain Nuruu National Park, Takhin Tal Nature Reserve and Khomiin Tal. The taxonomic position is still debated, and some taxonomists treat Przewalski’s Horse as a species. In China, the last wild Przewalski’s horses were seen in 1966.