For the last 30,000 years, humans have formed intricate relationships with the animals that cross our paths. For example, feeding scraps of food to wolves helped early humans avoid attack, and this soon led us to domesticating the dog. Farm animals such as cows, pigs and sheep all seem so timid to us now, but all of these once had wild ancestors roaming free across the planet. Another domesticated animal crucial to the progress of human society was the horse. Initially reared for meat by paleolithic ancestors, the horse was a crucial tool in logistics, war, and even entertainment such as racing. However, some horses were never tamed, and remain wild to this day.
In Mongolia, a nation synonymous with the horse, a wild breed unrelated to the domestic horses we know and love runs wild across the central steppe and elsewhere throughout Asia and Eastern Europe. But it was not always this way. The Przewalski horse, pronounced ‘shuh-val-skee’, also known at the ‘P-horse’ and by locals in Mongolia as ‘takhi’ (meaning worthy of worship), is a rare equine species that possesses many unique traits and is indeed worthy of praise.
The P-horse is notably shorter than a common horse, growing up to 1.5 meters in height and 2.4 meters in length. Though they are small and stocky, they still weigh in at approximately 300 kilograms. Their significant features include a thick neck and a disproportionately large head compared to their short legs. Their coat usually resembles a milky tea, and their short, upright mane similar to a zebra’s, resembles a 1970’s punk haircut.
They are majestic creatures, and this mystique has only been increased by how illusive they are. Throughout history, only sporadic accounts starting in the 1st Century have described witnessing or briefly encountering the P-horse in the wild. It was a whole 700 years after the first recorded evidence of P-horses that they were officially ‘discovered’, examined, and categorized by zoologists.
Nikolai Mikhailovich Przewalski was a member of the Russian army in the 19th Century and also an avid explorer and naturalist. In 1878, during an expedition across the central steppes of Mongolia and the Gobi Desert, Nikolai was presented with a skull and rawhide of the mysterious horse. Soon after this, he was able to spot the creature in the wild. When he returned home to St Petersburg, scientists named this previously uncategorized species has the Przewalski horse.
The P-horse is significant for a variety of reasons. It remains the only truly wild horse. Though there are horses that run free across the Americas and the Australasian continents, these are in fact horses that were once domesticated and kept for a variety of reasons, but simply escaped from ranches and other forms of captivity. The P-horse has never been truly domesticated: attempts were made by the Botai culture 5000 years ago, but DNA shows that they were unsuccessful, and the P-horse remains truly wild. The P-horse also holds an incredibly unique trait of having 33 pairs of chromosomes. This evidence shows us that the P-horse a biologically different species and is not a descendant of domestic horses, nor are domestic horses the descendants of the P-horse. The domesticated horse only has 32 pairs of chromosomes, yet in defiance to biology, the P-horse and domestic horse can breed, and create healthy fertile offspring. This still baffles scientists to this day, and the discovery has completely changed scientists’ outlook on how breeding works.
Sadly, it was less than 100 years after their introduction in the scientific realm that P-horses were last seen in the wild. The last wild sighting of a P-horse was in 1969 and after that they became officially extinct in the wild. Breeding them out with domesticated horses is one of the reasons for their extinction, as well has a loss of habitat, harsh winter weather, and wars in the regions that they flourished. Though capture for zoos across the globe was also a factor of their decline, the P-horse was not fully extinct remained in captivity throughout the 70’s and 80’s.
Finally, in the 1990’s, Mongolia made successful attempts to reintroduce the P-horse into the wild throughout several national parks across the country. Gradually, the P-horse was also introduced back into the wild elsewhere in Central Asia and Eastern Europe.
The collection of animals for display purposes in zoos remains a double-edged sword. Whilst this is has driven some animals to extinction, it also plays a crucial role in the conservation of these species too. Other critically endangered and extinct animals have similar stories to the P-horse. European bison, Eurasian beavers, and North Carolina red wolves are all species that are recently facing the prospect of reemergence back into their natural habitats.
With the ongoing destruction of the planet through deforestation, fossil fuels and other means, the concept of re-wilding has never been more relevant. Despite being the indirect after-effect of a tragic disaster, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone has now become a vibrant nature reserve. In 1998, 30 P-horses were introduced into this habitat, and as of 2022, this population has increased fivefold to 150 free-roaming horses. It is now believed that across the whole range of habitat they roam, there are now several hundred P-horses in the wild, and in the near future they will no longer be classified as an endangered species. There are still 2000 in captivity across numerous zoos and with time, more of these may be introduced back into other National Parks and free-roaming regions on the central steppes.
Horses are a major part of Mongolian culture: children as young as three are taught to ride domestic varieties, and they don’t even start formal education until six! A mythical wind horse, a symbol for the soul, is also emblazoned on the national emblem of Mongolia, and horse symbols appear frequently in Mongolian art and carved into traditional instruments. They were a crucial part of building Genghis Khan’s empire that, to this day, is still the largest land mass empire in human history, and they legacy and value has remained in local cultures ever since. Therefore, it is not a surprise that the Mongolian name for the P-horse, takhi, means worthy of worship, and much of their traditional music and dance exists to honour the horse. Hopefully, now that they have been released back into the wild, they can be worshipped in a way that they truly deserve.
– By James Lapping