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Of Changing Winds and Ancient Hoofbeats: Australia’s Newest Contribution to the Preservation of the Przewalski Horse

By Mae Lee Sun

Mongolian herdsman on a Mongolian domestic pony, a possible descendent or hybrid of the Takhi. Photo: courtesy of Todd Jenkinson/Taronga Western Plains Zoo       

   “I have been told that you cannot truly break in a Przewalski Horse and when you try to ride them they just sit down. There was a story that Genghis Khan rode them, but this is not correct. He once had an encounter where the domestic horse he was riding was spooked by a Takhi and he fell off his horse (apparently he ended up with a broken arm!)”     

– Todd Jenkinson, Studbook Keeper and Species Coordinator for the Przewalski Horse (Australia)

New Przewalski foal with Mum and another mare at the Werribee Open Park zoo.  Photo: Mae Lee Sun

On Mother’s Day, May 13, 2012, a Przewalski foal was born in captivity to a mare named ‘Mahan’ at the Werribee Open Range Zoo in Werribee, Victoria, Australia, bringing Australia’s total population of ‘Equus caballus przewalskii’ to 43 that are distributed amongst Werribee Open Range Zoo, Taronga Western Plains Zoo, Altina Wildlife Park, Halls Gap Zoo and Monarto Zoo. The foal hasn’t been named yet although the zoo traditionally picks names from the various regions of Mongolia.  What makes this announcement so special is that 2012 marks the 20thAnniversary of the reintroduction of the Przewalski horse into the wild.

A free-living ‘Takhi’ in Hustai National Park, Mongolia. Photo: courtesy of Todd Jenkinson/Taronga Western Plains Zoo

Standing at only two meters tall to the top of their heads, they have a very upright and brushy mane like a zebra, barely any forelock and a rather thick neck.   They’re sort of buckskin in color with a dark, dorsal stripe and have a unique genetic makeup, possessing 66 chromosomes instead of 64, making them an entirely different species from the domestic horse, including Mustangs, Brumbies, Exmoor ponies, Konik, Riwoche and other subspecies who evolved from domestic horses that were set free.

By the 1960s, the last free-living Przewalski horses had all but disappeared, classifying it as ‘Extinct’ by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).   One mature male however was spotted in the Gobi desert of Mongolia in 1959, prompting conservationists, biologists and researchers around the world to rally in an effort to save the stout little equid which likely inhabited the Central Asian, Mongolian, Russian and Eastern European landscape for more than 20,000 thousands years.

A misty June day for Mum and new foal at Werribee Open Park Zoo. Photo: Mae Lee Sun

Auspiciously a dozen living specimens of ‘Takhi’, or ‘Spirit’ horse as the Mongolians called them had been captured in the wild in 1900 and dispersed to zoos.  All of the approximately 1000 Przewalski horses alive today -in zoos, reintroduction programs and the 306 (IUCN latest report) now free living in Mongolia, descend back to that original dozen. Saving the Takhi has been no easy feat given that breeding programs are largely ineffective in bringing any species back from the brink of extinction.

Seven horses from Australia,  two stallions and five mares, were part of the global effort in 1995 although reintroduction had begun in 1992 at Hustai National Park (HNP), a UNESCO certified series of nature reserves in Mongolia which covers over 50,000 hectares of land.   The horses, all three-year-olds,  came from programs at both Taronga Western Plains Zoo in New South Wales and Monarto Open Range Zoo in South Australia and were released into the Gobi Desert.

Unfortunately, during the unusually harsh winter of 2009-2010 the horse population at HNP plummeted.   Todd Jenkinson, Unit Supervisor at Taronga and Przewalksi studbook keeper and species coordinator for Australia, was able to verify during his 2010 visit to HNP that last of the original horses reintroduced from Australia, a mare named Sogoo, had died during a snow storm that lasted several days. She did however produce three foals that were introduced into the area.

Todd Jenkinson, Przewalski studbook keeper for Australia and Unit Supervisor for Taronga Western Plains Zoo on his 2010 visit to Hustai National Park, Mongolia. Photo: courtesy of Todd Jenkinson/TWPZ

“Although summer temperatures are around 20°C, the country shivers in sub-zero temperatures for five months of the year, with January and February being the coldest months with temperatures hovering between -15°C to -30°C (the average for winter is -24°C),” Jenkinson stated, adding that weather is only one factor or threat to the horse’s long term survival and that they have to be able to survive in natural conditions without human involvement although in the weeks following their release, each group of takhi is carefully followed by its own ranger. By 1994, the first of 2 harems were released in the park after being kept under semi-wild conditions in “acclimatization areas”. Ten groups in all were released in this manner into the park; the last in 2002 he says.

“Every day the rangers on motorbikes and horseback check on the released harems. To collect data about Takhi home ranges, rangers and researchers make observations of their whereabouts. The harem’s location and preferred vegetation type are recorded along with other data such as weather conditions and Takhi behavior. All births and deaths are recorded, as are fluctuations in harem populations caused when a Takhi leaves its harem to join another one. The collected data helps to explain the distribution and habitat selection of the Takhi, and most importantly, their population dynamics.”

Mum ‘Mahan’ with her new foal will have a rest from the other resident Przewalski horses until the foal has adjusted to his life at Werribee Open Park Zoo.                 Photo: Mae Lee Sun

Davin Kroeger, senior keeper, at Werribee, who cares for the six Przewalski’s including the new foal, says they are unlike domestic and feral horses in behavior, physiology and care.  Having worked with this species for 20 years, he is pleased that Australia has participated in ensuring their survival, adding that they have very strong family bonds and relationships and that any changes in that structure, especially in captivity, will affect breeding.

“You have to be more strategic when you do anything with the Przewalski horses. It’s not like it is with say antelope where you can pretty much introduce them to new groups and they will sort it out.  The process is entirely different because of the way they bond with a group.  They’re very smart and we have to be selective about how we handle them, who gets placed with who.  Right now we have removed the other two stallions and mare we have from the foal and Mahan and the other mare, to give them a rest until the foal is big enough. “

Right down to regular maintenance like dental checkups and hoof trimming, the horses are handled very little and only when necessary, which amounts to around twice per year.  They aren’t treated the way your old faithful riding mount would be unless there was something unusually wrong like an inflamed leg in which case they might give an antibiotic or anti-flammatory.  After all, they are wild animals and the less interaction they have, the more likely they are to retain their natural survival instincts.

Two free-living ‘Takhi’ foals in Hustai National Park, Mongolia. Photo: courtesy of Todd Jenkinson/Taronga Western Plains Zoo

Once the Przewalski foal at Werribee is old enough, he will be transferred to another zoo.  For now, he adds to the number of Przewalski horses successfully bred in captivity.   Perhaps someday, the little horse, currently with no name, might make a big name for himself by contributing his bloodline to those living free and wild across the Mongolian landscape.

In September 2012 researchers, scientists and conservationists will come together once again for the International Wild Equid Conference to be held in Vienna, Austria, to not only report on the current status of the Przewalski population but to celebrate their success in saving this ancient and interesting equine.

For more information on the status of the Przewalski Horse go to:

IUCN Red List of Threatened Species:

Hustai National Park (Mongolia):

Werribee Open Range Zoo (Victoria, Australia) :

Taronga Western Plains Zoo (New South Wales, Australia) :  

Altina Wildlife Park (New South Wales, Australia) :  

Halls Gap Zoo (Victoria, Australia) :  

Monarto Zoo (South Australia) :

Written by maeleesun

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