The Przewalski’s horse, also called the Asian or Mongolian wild horse, is a truly wild species of horse that has never been regularly domesticated. It is classified as a relative of the domesticated horse, differing in significant genetic ways. There are approximately 1500 Przewalski’s horses in the world today, with only 250 existing in the wild.
Compared to a typical horse, a Przewalski’s horse is short and thick-built, with a heavy coat. Most reach a height of no more than 4.2 feet (1.3 m.) They are tan or light brown in color and some show patterns of striping on their legs. Most have a white face or muzzle, and their mane is unusually stiff and upright. The average weight of an adult horse is about 440 to 750 pounds (200 to 340 kg.)
The behavior of the Przewalski’s horse is typical of that in most other wild or feral horse populations. A family group is comprised of a dominant stallion and mare, several other lower-ranking mares, and foals. Young stallions live in bachelor groups, mating only when they can manage to get past the head stallion. The gestation of the mares is about 1 year, and births of one foal are most common. They maintain a specific home range, although family group ranges can usually overlap without causing problems.
The Przewalski’s horse was first officially described in the 19th century, by General Nikolai Przhevalsky, a Russian naturalist who set out for Asia to follow rumors of the horses’ existence. Many specimens were captured and exhibited in zoos, but never domesticated. In the 20th century, population expansion, hunting, and habitat destruction spelled doom for the wild herds. By the late 1960s, the species was considered extinct in the wild by most authorities.
One of the best cases for keeping animals in captivity for breeding purposes can be attributed to the Przewalski’s horse. The animals that had been taken for exhibition purposes at the turn of the 20th century were organized into a breeding group after the demise of the wild population. Through considerable effort, the population has increased from 31 captive specimens to 1500. In several areas throughout their previous native ranges in Mongolia, herds have been reintroduced into the wild.
While zoos are rightfully critiqued in many ways, the success of the wild horse breeding programs cannot be ignored. Without the original captivity, the Przewalski’s horses would likely not only be extinct in the wild, but extinct permanently. Through correctly applied conservation methods and scientific work, similar tactics may be used in the future to save other species in severe peril. The thunder of horse hooves again on the broad plains of Mongolia is surely a sign of sincere success.