We must safeguard the web of life and care about the other living species that we share this planet with. Pygmy tarsiers eat and host bugs that we’ve seen at home — insects, spiders, lizards, bedbugs, lice, fleas, roundworms, and tapeworms. The vaquitas are preyed upon by large sharks and killer whales, keeping them away from us. But only 10 vaquitas are left and in their absence, the diet of sharks and whales may change. A tiger in the wild indicates that the forest it inhabits is healthy and diverse. As of now, there are 3,900 tigers in the wild globally, and more than twice as many (8,000) in captivity. By protecting the web of life, we build a kinder world for everyone.
The Last Wild Horse
The Przewalksi’s horse (Equus przewalskii), is the last living wild horse today. Also called the Takhi, it was nearly extinct, but their population grew with scientific intervention first in captivity, and later in the wild.
Ironically, among other places, takhi are thriving in Chernobyl, Ukraine, best known for its 1986 nuclear power plant disaster that spread substantial radioactivity from Ukraine to other parts of Europe.
Long before Chernobyl, wild horses including takhi (Mongolian for “spirit”) roamed the steppes of Central Asia, China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Russian Siberia, Europe, and North America.
When Chernobyl exploded, 350,000 people were evacuated, and 237 people were airlifted to Moscow for treatment of acute radiation syndrome. Five years later, over 90 percent of Ukrainian children had cancer. Twenty years later, 5,000 thyroid cancer cases were registered in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine, by people who were aged 18 and younger when Chernobyl exploded.
In 2005, government assistance was given to 19,000 Ukraine families because a breadwinner’s death was related to Chernobyl. Also, people born after Chernobyl experienced genetic damage such as microsatellite instability (MSI), a condition where DNA cannot replicate and repair itself. The infected children’s fathers had been exposed to Chernobyl radiation.
And yet, today Chernobyl is a rich ecosystem with plants and animals who have adapted to its low radiation levels. Some 60 takhi horses are successfully reproducing here. Some 7,000 people work at or around the nuclear plant.
The Most Unspoiled Steppes
The most unspoiled steppes are in Mongolia and Central Asia. Their golden tan hues, erect manes, short, stocky bodies and flourishing tails are stunning. The Eastern Mongolian Steppes is a World Heritage Site where takhi horses are being reintroduced to the wild.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) red list once ranked takhis extinct in the wild. Today they are Critically Endangered (CE). A CE rank means an over 50% possibility that takhis will be extinct within 10 years, so science continues.
First Scientific Documentation
The takhi was familiar to Central Asians and Mongolians. But not to Russian officer, Nicolai von Przewalski, who saw it in 1880 in the Dzungarian Gobi of Mongolia (DzG). The takhi was documented by zoology professor A. Poliakov in 1881 as Przewalski’s horse. The last herd of takhi was spotted in 1967, and the last individual takhi was seen in 1969 in Mongolia, near the Takhin Tal, Great Gobi B.
Interbreeding and Chromosome Testing
Conservations are working to preserve and enlarge purebred populations in the wild. Through inbreeding (meaning their parents are pure takhis), the natural characteristics of a wild horse will prevail.
Inbreeding differs from Interbreeding, which is when a takhi breeds with a domestic horse. The offspring are fertile and look like takhis. Chromosome testing is needed to prove their lineage. As of 2008, all purebred takhis were born from 13 founders.
Timeline of the Takhi
Here is the timeline of the takhi from its near extinction status to its growing populations in the wild.
- 1900. German merchant Carl Hagenbeck, a seller of exotic animals, noticed that most of the takhis were over-hunted. He purchased whatever takhis he found, and sold them to zoos around Europe and to P.T. Barnum.
- 1910 – 1960. Fourteen founder takhis were caught in the wild and bred in captivity.
- 1913. Hagenbeck died, and the remaining wild herds were further decimated by habitat loss and extremely harsh winters in the mid-1900s. Most takhis lived in captivity.
- 1945. The Zoological Society of London collaborated with Mongolian researcher teams to conserve the takhis in captivity. Only 31 takhis were alive, kept in two zoos. One in Prague, the Czech Republic, and the other in Munich, Germany. All living takhis today descend from nine of these 31 horses.
- End 1950s. Only 12 individuals remained.
- 1958. The Tierpark Berlin Zoo in Germany began to keep takhi horses.1959. Prague Zoo oversaw an international studbook which recorded the parentage and bloodline of every takhi horse on the earth.
- 1963. Tierpark, in collaboration with other breeding programs, bred 98 foals, born in captivity.
- 1977. In Rotterdam the Foundation for the Preservation and Protection of the Przewalski Horse was formed. They computerized the Takhi studbook from Prague. This enabled them to choose takhi horses that were hardly related for mating and producing sturdier foals. The result was healthy foals that lived longer. Because of this all takhis, although descended from nine individuals in 1945, are genetically sustainable. Hopefully, the takhi can return to the steppe, but an intermediate phase in semi-wild nature reserves is still needed.
- 1986. The Cologne Zoo joined the European Endangered Species Program (EAZA) to breed takhis across Europe, the United States, and the former Soviet Union, largely pivotal to their survival. Hopefully, the takhi can return to the steppe, but an intermediate phase in semi-wild nature reserves is still needed.
- 1986. The Cologne Zoo joined the European Endangered Species Program (EAZA) to breed takhis across Europe, the United States, and the former Soviet Union, largely pivotal to their survival.
- June 1985 to December 1991. Eighteen takhis (eight stallions and 10 mares) were sent to China’s Przewalski’s Horse Breeding Institute, Jimsar County, Xinjiang, China, where reproduction of takhis were studied in captivity.
- 1990. Some 1500 individuals were successfully bred in captivity.
- 1992. Some takhis were rewilded to Hustain Nuruu, Mongolia.
- 1993. Hustai National Park was declared a Specially Protected Area, for sustenance and growth of takhis.
- 1997: A group of takhis were released in Pentezug, a semi-reserve in the Hortobagy National Park, Hungary. The takhis successfully reproduced.
- 1998. In a different program, 30 takhis were released into the Chernobyl zone. They were there to replace an extinct wild horse, the Tarpan. Soon after, they stopped the experiment. However, on their own, the takhis grew in number to 150 individuals. Another 60 takhis crossed the border to Belarus.
- August 2001. As the number of these captive horses increased, some 300 takhis were released to fields in Khustain Nuruu National Park, Takhin Tal Nature Reserve, Khar Us Nuur National Park, and Khomiin Tal Reserve, all in Mongolia.
- Meanwhile, in China, the first takhi horses were sent into semi-wild conditions in the Kalamaili Nature Reserve (KNR). The horses roamed freely from spring to fall, but in winter, were corralled for a healthier and more plentiful diet to enable them to survive.
- 2002 to 2006. Jinliang Chen et. al. tracked the reproductive behavior of released takhis. In its first year of release, 10 takhis died in the wild and no new horses were born. A foal was killed by his father, the leading stallion. Other infant deaths were from disease. In these incidents, the mother stayed beside the carcass the whole day, and other takhis stayed close by for a half day.
- 2007. At the Smithsonian Institute’s National Zoo, veterinarians successfully did the first reverse vasectomy on a Takhi horse named Minnesota. Researchers reversed the vasectomy because the takhi’s ancestry was pure, making him genetically valuable.
- 2010. More foals were born in China’s breeding programs, resulting in the release of more individuals into the wild of northwestern China.
- 2013. The first takhi horse was born through artificial insemination at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI), Virginia. This was after seven years of learning how to get semen from stallions, monitoring mare hormone levels, and learning estrus cycles compared to domestic horses.
- 2018. In Hungary, a massive loss of takhis suggested limited food sources and changed habitat use. Scientists concluded that birth control measures were needed. They also continued to monitor habitat use and body conditions to balance the population size with habitat capacity.
- 2021. According to Prague zoo conservationists, there are now 2,700 takhis that are alive and thriving.
Wild, Feral, and Domestic Horses
Some say there are wild horses in the United States. However, these horses are feral, not wild. Wild horses have never been domesticated, which is why the takhi is the only wild horse that is alive today. Feral horses, like the ones in the US escaped from farms and ranches and thrived on their own in the steppe. They aren’t wild because their progenitors were domesticated. Domestic horses are bred for human use and they live with people in ranches and farms.
Barbie and Cooper, Up Close
This year, a mother-son team of Takhis, Barbie and Cooper, arrived at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo for scientists to study their personalities and behavior more closely.
Here’s what they observed:
Cooper (the foal) and Barbie (the mare) look after each other, a trait of wild horses when they sense danger.
Barbie, 14, is friendly and expressive. She briefly let her keeper touch her face, and she reached out to sniff her keeper’s hand.
Cooper, 10, is reserved. He is learning to get accustomed to eating in a barn. He allows his keeper to watch him, provided the keeper sits very still.
Both horses show moderate to high avoidance of new situations, objects (including their food bowls) and people, another characteristic of wild horses.
Everything — even containers with their food and water are initially a potential threat to them.
Ecological Value of Wild Horses
Wild horses played an integral role in the steppe ecosystem. As herbivores, they feed on low-quality grass, bushes and short, shrubby trees. When there is little grass and leaves, they eat tree bark. The takhi is a hind-gut fermenter, meaning its food is fermented in their large intestines. Because of this, they require lots of water.
Takhis contribute to the health of an ecosystem by scattering seeds when they eliminate waste, in this way permitting reseeding of the steppe. When there is snow, they form trails and break ice at watering holes, in this way helping weaker animals to survive winter.
The common predator of wild horses has historically been mountain lions, wolves, other predator animals, and people.
One Scientific Success, one Scientific Failure
We can’t help thinking of the irony, that a deadly scientific failure, Chernobyl, led to its becoming a thriving ecosystem because people left the place. There are only 7,000 people in Chernobyl who work in and around the nuclear plant.
The scientific success story is the repopulation of the takhis. Plus, the fact that the takhis multiplied on their own in Chernobyl from 30 individuals to 150, plus 30 others that went to Belarus.
This is like a Pocahontas moment for me. We really can’t think that we own every land we land on. Nature has its own way.