The Przewalski's horse (Equus ferus przewalskii) - aka the Asiatic wild horse, Mongolian wild horse or takhi - is the only surviving representative of the prehistoric wild horse (Equus ferus). If it hadn't been for the great efforts of the IUDZG (International Union of Directors of Zoological Gardens), this species would not only have become extinct in the wild, but would have been lost forever. The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) had listed the Przewalski's horse as "extinct in the wild" during the last decades. Nowadays, as it has been reintroduced to its native habitat in Mongolia, Kazakhstan and also China, it is defined as "critically endangered".
Status in the Wild
Originally, the various subspecies of the wild horse populated the whole Eurasion continent; however, the populations of both the forest tarpan (Equus ferus silvaticus) - native in the forest and bushland of Central and Eastern Europe - and the steppe tarpan (Equus ferus gmelini) - native in the region of the Black Sea - were both decimated during the 19th century. The Przewalski's horse, whose original habitat were the steppes of Central Asia (from the Ural to the east as far as Mongolia), has been forced to withdraw into the barren regions of the Gobi desert in southern Mongolia; when it became extinct in the late 1960s, it was the last prehistoric wild horse to become extinct in the wild. The last Przewalski's horse was seen in the Dzungarian Gobi in 1968. Having lost the fight for food and water against the nomad's domestic livestock, the Przewalski's horse was eventually destroyed by illegal hunting and hybridisation with ponies. Since the early 1990s, the Przewalski's horse can again be found in Mongolia, thanks to the reintroduction programmes of various zoos and breeding stations. Today, almost two hundred of these beautiful animals are living in the Hustain Nuruu National Park in central Mongolia and in the Great Gobi National Park in southern Mongolia, near the Chinese boarder.
Luckily, some Przewalski's horses had already been collected and taken into care by zoos and private breeders when the last individuals became extinct in the wild; Baron Friedrich von Falz-Fein was the first to take Przewalski's horses into his park in Askania-Nowa (today's Ukrane). At the same time - between 1899 and 1904 - Carl Hagenbeck captured fifty-four foals and brought them to Europe; unfortunately, many died even before they reached adolescence. Only thirteen founder animals were able to procreate in captivity, but this was enough to ensure the survival of the species. What began with forty-one animals in captivity in 1956 has now reached over two thousand, which constitutes a solid basis for the ongoing reintroduction programmes.
The Przewalski's horse is the sole surviving representative of the prehistoric wild horse - this fact alone explains the high importance of its conservation and research. As it is the closest relative of all extinct wild horses, it remains the only reference for the comparison of today's domesticated equids with their wild ancestors. Thus, the Przewalski's horse has become one of the most profoundly researched species ever: knowledge of its behaviour, genetics and ecological demands, have been broadened so that - despite adverse conditions - its conservation and reintroduction have turned into a successful model of modern zoo philosophy.
EAZA Equid TAG (Taxon Advisory Group) Recommendations
Supervision and control of the zoo population through the EEP, the European Endangered Species Programme, as well as the reintroduction programmes must be continued. Large zoo populations should be reduced, so that there will be enough space and resources for acutely endangered equids.
The Przewalski's Horse and the Werner Stamm Foundation
The Werner Stamm Foundation's breeding programme has been a great success, comparable to that of the EEP; in addition, the Werner Stamm Foundation has been able to take a leading role in the reintroduction project in the Mongolian Gobi. The Werner Stamm Foundation purchased the first wild horses in Rotterdam in 1970; in the following years, three more animals joined them from Prague and Munich. Up to 1995, forty-three foals were born within the foundation's enclosures, nineteen of which were stallions and twenty-four mares. After 1995, the breeding of the Przewalski's horse was discontinued in favour of other acutely endangered equids. From 1995 to 1997, fourteen animals from Oberwil were transported to Mongolia and reintroduced to the Gobi. Through the ITG, the International Takhi Group, the Werner Stamm Foundation was in charge of the Gobi reintroduction programme and is still involved in this pilot project, both financially and with personnel.