The Przewalski’s Horse or P-horse is the last true remaining wild horse in the world — unlike other populations of “wild” horses, they aren’t feral versions of domesticated species, but their own distinct wild species, with a lineage dating back thousands of years. Spotted intermittently by people for centuries, they were “discovered” in the 1800s. They’re still critically endangered, though conservationists are working hard to bring their gene pool back to life so future generations can enjoy them, and learn from them.
In honor of the Year of the Horse (gung hay fat choy!), we thought we’d take a minute to celebrate these unique equines.
At first glance, a Przewalski’s Horse might look a like your average horse, but look closer. These equines have stocky, muscular bodies, built to withstand the tough conditions of their native stomping grounds across Mongolia and other regions of Asia and Eurasia. Note that their manes stand up in a short ruff, much like the Norwegian Fjord horse, and they also sport dorsal stripes.
Despite the similarities in looks, though, P-horses aren’t actually in the same species as domesticated horses. Nor are they the progenitors of modern horses. Genetic sequencing demonstrates that they’re in a different clade — their very own evolutionary fork. This makes them incredibly valuable as subjects of research, as it can help us understand more about the origins and evolution of the horse. (Plus, it’s just neat.)
Amazingly, as the 1950s drew to a close, there were only 12 known P-horses in the world. That usually spells the death knell for a species — in this case, the horses were driven out of their native habitat, hunted, slaughtered by Nazis and captured for zoos. Thanks to the efforts of Mongolian researchers working to preserve their cultural heritage in partnership with the Zoological Society of London, breeding of the captive population managed to rapidly boost numbers by the 1990s, though they were still critically low.
With an increase in numbers came the possibility of reintroducing the horses to the wild, where they’re meant to be. Wild populations are watched closely to protect their health and safety (and yes, one herd is merrily living in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone!), and conservationists know the Przewalski’s Horse has a long way to go before it can be considered fully recovered. Right now, though, these horses are starting to look an awful look like a major conservation success story.
Want to help these beautiful creatures survive into the next century? Numerous conservation and captive breeding programs around the world count on funding support from donors like you — why not check to see if your local conservation organization works with Przewalski’s Horses, or can refer you to an organization that does?
Photo credit: Steve Wilson.