This, the last truly wild horse, is skittish, stubborn, naturally shy and sometimes very aggressive. The species came to the brink of extinction last century. A visit to Werribee Open Range Zoo’s small herd is a rare opportunity to see this species, which has never been tamed by humans.
Przewalski Horses once ranged across parts of Europe and central Asia. However wild numbers were dramatically reduced over the 19th century and the species was classed as ‘extinct in the wild’ in the 1960s. Then a mature adult was found in the wild and the species was reclassified as ‘critically endangered’. There have since been dedicated efforts to breed and reintroduce animals into the wild and in 2012 there were estimated to be more than 50 individuals in the wild. The Przewalski Horse is now classed as ‘endangered’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (on the IUCN ‘red list’). While they are no longer hunted, threats remain and include loss of genetic diversity, hybridisation with domestic horses and extreme winters.
Efforts to bring this species back from the brink of extinction have resulted in numbers increasing steadily. Such is the success of captive breeding programs that from 1992 to 2004, 90 Mongolian wild horses bred by 24 different institutions in eight countries (including Australia) were returned to the Gobi desert. Currently, there are around 1500 animals in zoos and breeding facilities, carrying genes from 14 founders. As a participating member of the international Przewalski’s Horse breeding program, Werribee Open Range Zoo follows the Australasian Species Coordinator’s recommendations for breeding this species to manage captive numbers and the genetic diversity of the population.
Typically Przewalski Horses inhabited grassy deserts and plains in Western Mongolia, but the horses have been reported to have lived at elevations of up to 8000 feet.
Przewalski Horses are social horses and prefer to have company rather than to be alone. They will graze, rest and play all together. They have individual friendships and live in groups from six to 16 animals.
There are two types of herds: bachelor herds and family herds. Bachelor herds consist of males that are either too old or too young to physically challenge a dominant male for their own family herd. The family herd structure is highly developed and has a stallion and six to eight mares and their colts and a few yearlings.
Lead mares usually lead the grazing activities. In the wild during the summer they usually graze in the early morning or early evening when it is cooler. They rest during the heat of the day and they sleep together in a cluster for about 4 hours a night.
They eat grass, plants and fruit and sometimes bark, leaves and buds. In zoos they typically eat about half a bale (about 12kg) of grass hay per day.
- The Przewalski Horse (pronounced sha-val-ski) is also known as the Mongolian Wild Horse and Takhi (‘spirit’). Horses are central to Mongolian culture, and Takhi are a symbol of their national heritage
- The Przewalski Horse is the only true wild horse left in the world. ‘Wild’ horses in other places (like the mustang and the brumby) are really domestic horses gone wild
- Przewalski Horses are genetically distinct from domestic horses because they have 66 chromosomes and a domestic horse only has 64. If you crossed a Przewalski and a domestic horse you would have 65 chromosomes. Crossing the two produces infertile young
- Przewalski Horses lack a forelock or fringe and their zebra-like mane stands erect, making them look very different from the domesticated horse
- Their hooves are wide, black and hard and in captivity, they need be trimmed back once or twice a year
- In winter they grow thick shaggy woollen coats and shed them in the spring. They also grow extra fur on their fetlocks, cheeks and throats in the winter