The Przewalski’s horse—also known as the Asian wild horse, takhi, and, yehmeh—originated on the frigid steppes of Western Europe and Asia. Short, stocky horses, they range in color from tan to light brown, with a belly lighter than their flanks. Their bristly mane sticks straight up, zebra-like, and they have dark zebra stripes on their lower legs as well as a dark stripe that runs along their back from neck to tail. The Przewalski’s horse (Equus ferus przewalskii) is the last remaining wild horse; they have never been tamed or ridden. The mustang, and other "wild" horses are actual feral horses; they are the descendents of escaped domestic horses (Equus caballus).
Przewalski’s horse numbers have dwindled rapidly in Mongolia and China, due to hunting by humans, competition with livestock, and harsh climate conditions. In 1970, the World Conservation Union (IUCN) listed the species extinct in the wild. In 2008, thanks to reintroductions and conservation efforts, they were reclassified as critically endangered.
About 1,500 Przewalski’s horses live in zoos and breeding facilities throughout the world, all of whom are descendants of only 14 horses captured between 1897 and 1950. The Przewalski’s Horse Species Survival Plan (SSP) manages this population to ensure that it stays as healthy and genetically diverse as possible.
A Species Survival Plan is a population management group that recommends breeding priority based on calculations by matchmaking software. The main goal is to achieve maximum genetic diversity by breeding the least similar individuals, so that the offspring are less inbred and have a better chance of surviving in the wild. Unlike breeding programs for domestic horses, Przewalski’s horses are bred to maintain gene diversity, rather than for specific traits such as coloration or athletic ability. This process is comparable to Internet dating in today’s society. The only difference is that the horses are ranked and matched based on their genetic uniqueness in the population, rather than by interests and personality.
To do this, zoos and breeding facilities exchange animals or genetic material (often sperm) from all over the world. In the spring of 2007, the National Zoo’s Conservation and Research Center (CRC) and two other North American zoos imported five mares of breeding age from Europe. This was necessary because many mares in North America were having fertility problems or were past the normal age for breeding.
Emma and Maja are the two mares that came to CRC from Europe, joining the seven stallions and 17 mares already living there. Maja is five years old, tan, and originally from Stuttgart, Germany. Emma is six, reddish-brown, and comes from Antwerp, Belgium. They arrived at the CRC on March 7, 2007, and, after clearing quarantine, they were immediately introduced to Frog. Frog is the highest ranking stallion in the SSP, and also the last Przewalski’s horse born at CRC back in May of 1999. Frog successfully bred both mares by the end of summer in 2007. After an 11-month pregnancy, two foals were born at the CRC less than a week apart this year. Maja was the first to foal; she gave birth to a beautiful filly on June 27, 2008. Emma followed, giving birth to a handsome colt on July 1, 2008.
These new foals are important to the National Zoo/CRC community not just because they are the first Przewalski’s horse births in nine years, but also because they will infuse new genes into the population, and increase the total number of Przewalski’s horses, especially young horses. Optimal management of the Przewalski’s horse population in zoos could provide horses for the six established reintroduction sites in China, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan. More than 400 horses have been reintroduced to those sites, and we hope ongoing efforts will lead to the successful return of Przewalski’s horse to the steppes of Asia.