It has been nearly a decade since Przewalski’s horses (pronounced shuh-VAHL-skeez) resided at Brookfield Zoo. That changed this fall when three mares arrived at the zoo from National Zoo’s Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Virginia. Guests can now see Olivia, 21, April, 20, and May, 20, on exhibit in a newly refurbished habitat along 31st Street, on the zoo’s north side.
Przewalski’s horses, which were exhibited consistently at Brookfield Zoo between 1955 and 2001, are named after Colonel Nikolai Przewalksi, the first Western scientist to observe the species and to describe the horses in writing in 1878. The Przewalski’s horse is the Mongolian symbol of pride, much like the bald eagle in the United States. Mongolians refer to the horse as takh, or “spirit.”
Przewalski’s horses are the last truly wild horse species, having never been ridden or domesticated. They are the only surviving ancestor of today’s domestic horses. The species has a brownish coat, which becomes lighter toward the belly. They have short, stocky legs and measure 4 feet at the shoulder. Unlike familiar domestic breeds of horse, the Przewalski’s horse has a short, stiff main and lacks the forelock, or hair that hangs over its forehead.
In existence for thousands and thousands of years and once native to the scrublands, steppes, and plains throughout Europe and Asia, Przewalski’s horses were last seen in the wild in 1969. The wild population’s demise was due to hunting, climate challenges, military activities, lack of water sources, and loss of habitat to livestock and human populations. In 1970 when there were only about 150 individual horses in zoos, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) categorized the species as extinct in the wild. Since then, thanks to a successful breeding program and the cooperation of zoos around the world, the future of Przewalski’s horses is looking more promising.
In 1977, the Foundation for the Preservation and Protection of the Przewalski’s Horse (FPPPH) was established to maintain the breeding records and genetic history of each individual horse. The FPPPH and the Dutch World Wide Fund for Nature then set up a semi-wild reserve in the Netherlands where the species could begin to adapt to self-sufficient living in larger, more open spaces. More than 15 years ago, 16 Przewalski’s horses from reserves in the Ukraine and Netherlands were released into the
Mongolian landscape on the Hustai Nuruu mountain steppe. For the first time after a quarter century, the species returned to its natural habitat. Additional reintroductions have also included animals from reserves in Germany
Today, nearly 400 Przewalski’s horses have been released at the Hustai and Gobi National Parks in Mongolia. There is also a breeding and reintroduction program underway in China’s Kalameili Nature Reserve, where the horses spend part of the year in a facility and part of the year roaming free. More than 1,500 other individuals live in zoos. Because of the success of the species’ reintroduction, in 2008 IUCN officially changed the horses’ conservation status from “extinct” to “critically endangered.”
Brookfield Zoo is a participant in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Przewalski’s Horse Species Survival Plan. The SSP is a cooperative population management and conservation program for a species. This program manages the breeding of Przewalski’s horses in zoos to maintain a healthy, self-sustaining population that is both genetically diverse and demographically stable. Currently, Brookfield Zoo has no plans to establish a breeding population. It has been recommended that the zoo house nonreproductive individuals so that other institutions can engage in breeding.