Rare Przewalski Horse Of Mongolia Returns Home

Breeders bring animals to preserves after13 generations of captivity and near extinction

In what appears to be one of the most successful returns to nature, the world's only surviving race of wild horses is making it in Mongolia.

In this nature reserve several hours drive outside the Mongolian capital of Ulan Bator, about a dozen Przewalski horses now roam freely across the Mongolian steppe.

After 13 generations of being held in captivity around the world and reduced to near extinction here, the horses have been brought home where they are still considered holy and a symbol of Mongolia's attempt to preserve its environment.

"The horses are venerated by Mongols," says Perenlein Galragchaa, director of the horse preserve. "They are called 'takhi,' which means 'to pray.' "

On behalf of a species of horses once almost wiped out by humans, organizations around the world now compete to donate Przewalski horses, long held in zoos and captivity, to Mongolia. Politicians here are keen to claim responsibility for welcoming back the revered animals.

Everyone is jumping into the act. Two Dutch philanthropists led one program to rescue and acquire the horses from zoos and establish nature reserves for the horses in Europe. When they breed out the faults caused by extensive inbreeding in the animals, they are returned to Mongolia.

Inge Bouman and her husband established the Foundation Reserves for the Przewalski Horse in 1980 and then persuaded the Mongolian government to establish the 120,000-acre Hustain Nuruu National Reserve. Under a five-year program sponsored by the Dutch government, horses are shipped from Europe, the first group of 15 arriving in 1992. Already, 58 animals have been released into the wild, and 16 new horses are returned yearly. Eventually, 200 will run freely in the area.

"I felt very sorry for the Przewalski horse, living in such a small contained area," says Mrs. Bouman, who recently traveled to Mongolia to release more horses. "They should be given the best chance possible to survive."

The Przewalski has captured world imagination because some scientists believe it represents the last truly wild ancestor of the modern domestic horse. Mustangs or feral horses in the United States are first domesticated and then run wild. Przewalski horses cannot be tamed or ridden if healthy.

The horses are one of only two species of wild horses that survived until recently. The tarpan horse disappeared in the Ukraine at the end of the last century. The Przewalski is a reddish horse that stands up to 4 feet, 8 inches tall with a cropped mane and dark tail. The animal, suited for desert conditions, can go for days without water. It was named after Nikolai Przewalski, a Polish explorer. In 1879, he found a skull of one of the horses and pronounced it as wild.

At that time, the species was already endangered. Human settlements had intruded onto the steppe and pushed the horses toward the southern desert. Hunters captured dozens of horses, and numerous others died in captivity or in protecting their foals.

Improved hunting weapons posed a further threat. Eventually, the last horses were seen in the wild in 1968, and the race seemed doomed to distinction. During World War II, Hermann Goering, a Nazi leader in Germany, planned to breed all the animals that might have lived in the German Reich, including the Przewalskis.

Although two horses were acquired from a reserve in the Ukraine, heavy bombing by Allied forces devastated the German breeding program, and only 31 horses remained after the war.

Intensive breeding of the horses began anew, and by 1990, more than 900 of the horses were held in captivity. Inbreeding became a problem because there were still so few of the horses. Although the horses have readapted to Mongolia's harsh winters and can defend themselves against attack by wolves, Western experts question if the Przewalskis from Europe will breed with other Mongolian horses.

Emerging to compete with the Dutch project is a larger reserve for horses in the Gobi Desert in southern Mongolia, considered to be the horses' last known habitat.

The project is the idea of Christian Oswald, a German game hunter who has been dealing in rare animals since the 1980s and wanted to preserve the horses.

The reserve has received many horses as gifts. In 1992, when Sydney and Beijing were vying to host the 2000 Summer Olympics, the Sydney organizing committee promised Mongolia seven of the Przewalski mares to win its support and eventually edged out Beijing by one vote.

"We wanted to be part of the reintroduction of the Przewalski into Asia," says Mr. Oswald who has business interests in Mongolia. "We actually started first, but it didn't attract so much attention."

The Dutch project has reported more success and an increasing population of horses while those in the Gobi have produced few foals and have to rely on humans to be fed.

"Oswald acquires his as business gifts. This is a real reintroduction program," Bouman says.

"We would like to link our project with theirs," says Mr. Galragchaa, director of the Dutch-sponsored reserve.

"The Gobi Desert horses are of inferior genetic quality. There is too much inbreeding. If they are not helped, will they die?"

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