Since the early 1970s the rare Przewalski horse of the Mongolian steppes - a stocky, shorter-legged relative of the domestic horse - was classified as "extinct in the wild". Named after Russian geographer and explorer General Nikolai Mikhaylovich Przhevalsky, who first confirmed its existence in the mid-1800s, the Przewalski horse survived in captivity. One place where the horse survived was at Prague Zoo, which has been breeding it since the 1930s. Now the zoo is involved in a project to return the animal to the wild.
The natural habitat of the wild Przewalski horse is the harsh Mongolian steppes subject to frequent sandstorms, where temperatures range from 40 degrees Celsius in the summer to -45 in the winter. The horses are stocky survivors, but they would have gone extinct long ago had zoos in the last century not continued to breed the animal in captivity. According to sources, all of today's 2,000 or so Przewalski horses were bred from just thirty-one animals. Vit Kahle is a spokesman for the Prague Zoo:
"Przewalski horse breeding has a long tradition at Prague Zoo and is a matter of pride, our 'family silver' so to speak. In the 1930s, zoos basically ensured the survival of the species: already then there were very few left in the wild. Today there are almost 2,000 Przewalski horses in captivity. That is an exceptional success and in a way shows how zoos can be important. When an animal is pushed to the edge, almost becoming extinct, one of the greatest missions of zoos is ensuring their continued survival and future."
The last grouping of the horse spotted in the wild in Mongolia was in 1967 - the last individual horse in 1969. But slowly, gradually, the horse has been reintroduced. In 1992, more than a dozen were returned to Mongolia and reportedly reproduced. Last year their status was changed, improving from "extinct in the wild" to "endangered". Horses are introduced carefully, namely at two acclimatisation stations in the Gobi Desert, home to some 100 specimens. According to Prague Zoo, 19 new foals were born into natural conditions there this year, some of them third generation. Zoo representatives have stressed the animals have learned to survive in hard climate conditions, made even more difficult by the presence of wolves and some parasites.
Newer specimens will once again be sent from Prague Zoo this summer, stopping first at the Askania reservation in Ukraine, which has a long tradition in Przewalski horse breeding. Gradually, the horses there will then be transported on a final leg of their journey, eventually reaching their long-lost Asian home.
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