Saving Mongolia’s Wild Horses

Przewalski horses or, to use their Mongolian name, Takhi, are the world’s only verifiably wild horses, a sub-species genetically distinct from any other equine. By 1945, only 12 survived, hunted nearly to extinction for their meat. Add to this Mongolia’s brutal winters, scorching summers, sandstorms, wolf predation and pursuit by collectors and their near-demise is understandable. Today, 1,800 of their descendants exist globally, mostly in zoos. Now the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. and The Wilds in Ohio are involved in an effort to return free-ranging Takhi to Mongolia.

The Wilds is a vast facility devoted to endangered wildlife conservation. “While The Wilds is not a zoo, it was tied into the same breeding rules as zoos,” says Evan Blumer, The Wilds’ senior vice president of conservation and science. Those rules are part of a Species Survival Plan (SSP) for the horses, which imposes a captive breeding ban unless natural “bachelor groups” are viable.

In the wild, aggressive young stallion “bachelors” run together. The dominant male eventually takes a harem of mares and breeds. The limited space of most zoos relegate stallions to isolation, but The Wilds’ extensive rangeland allows horses to run free and develop natural rankings, so the SSP breeding restriction was lifted. “The Wilds represents a fairly good habitat to breed these horses for reintroduction,” says Blumer. “We’re now coordinating breeding stock with the National Zoo. Horses are being bred for offspring that are suited to survive in a hostile environment.”

Three foals have been born and are being raised with little human contact. In three years, mature horses should be ready for the 45-hour trip to two reintroduction sites in Mongolia. Michael Stuewe, research associate at the National Zoo, explains the optimism for the project’s success. “Data from previous European introductions showed that horses older than three years had lower survival rates, but a young horse is still adaptable to the harsh Gobi environment.”

In Mongolia, the International Takhi Group (ITG) will operate transitional release enclosures to guard new
arrivals against exposure to natural infections. The horses will then roam freely and, it is hoped, create a self-sustaining breeding population. According to Jean-Pierre Siegfried of ITG, “The sooner we can build up the Gobi takhi population by shipping genetically diverse founders from captive breeding institutions, the faster a viable free-ranging population can establish itself.” Reintroduction is costly, though, as shipping, vet care, monitoring and other expenses run about $5,500 per horse.

The Wilds, the National Zoo and ITG hope to make Przewalski horses a flagship species for restoring an ecological balance in Mongolia.