After years of breeding programs, the one remaining true species of wild horse is slowly returning to the Mongolian Steppes. Just a few years ago, Przewalski's horses were confined to zoos and reserves in China and Mongolia, but the stocky, scrubby horses are finally returning to the wild.
Although feral horses like the American Mustang and the Australian Brumby are often called “wild,” they are actually descended from domesticated horses. The Przewalski's horse is the only species that truly remained wild, Jane Palmer reports for the BBC.
"They are sacred and symbolic to the local people," Claudia Feh, director of the Association for the Przewalski's horse (or TAKH), tells Palmer.
Once revered by Mongolians as spiritual messengers, the Przewalski's horse stands roughly four feet tall at the shoulder, much smaller than most domesticated horses. The stocky wild horses are more muscular too, with a scrubby, short mane that sticks straight up.
But while the horses once roamed from the Russian Steppes to Kazakhstan and Northern China, by the 1960s they had all but disappeared from the face of the planet—over-hunting, extreme winter weather and encroaching human settlements nearly wiped out the species, Palmer reports. At their lowest point, only 12 Przewalski's horses survived and the International Union for Conservation of Nature listed them as “extinct in the wild.”
Thanks to an aggressive breeding program, there are now about 2,000 Przewalski's horses worldwide, with about 350 living on reserves in Mongolia.
"Apparently even 12 horses have a lot of genetic variation and the broader lesson is that we should not give up on a species...we should not abandon them to extinction as long as there is a breeding pair," University of Kentucky researcher Ernest Bailey tells Douglas Main for Newsweek.
While the Przewalski's horses are starting to return to the wild, they still face big threats to their long-term survival. Although the 12 surviving horses had enough genetic diversity to bring them back from the brink, their descendants are now vulnerable to diseases from inbreeding.
There is also a risk that the horses could breed themselves out of existence if they mate with feral horses that are descended from domesticated stock. While there is some discussion over whether Przewalski's horses are a different species from domesticated horses, researchers have found that the two animals only branched off about 45,000 years ago and can still interbreed, Main reports. In addition, the newly rewilded horses will still have to survive harsh Mongolian winters out on the steppes.
The Przewalski's horses may not be completely out of the woods, but for a species that was on the brink of extinction just a few decades ago, they might now have a fighting chance at returning to the wild.