Common names for this equine include Asian wild horse, Przewalski's Wild Horse,Mongolian wild horse and the Tahki. Historical but obsolete names include true tarpan and Mongolian tarpan. The horse is named after the Russian geographer and explorer Nikolai Przhevalsky.
Most "wild" horses today, such as the American Mustang or the Australian Brumby, are actually feral horses descended from domesticated animals that escaped and adapted to life in the wild. In contrast, Przewalski's horse has never been successfully domesticated and remains a truly wild animal today. Przewalski's horse is one of three known subspecies of Equus ferus, the others being the domesticated horse, Equus caballus and the extinct tarpan (Equus ferus ferus). The Przewalski's horse is considered the only remaining truly wild "horse" in the world and may be the closest living wild relative of the domesticated horse. There are still a number of other wild equines, including three species of zebra and various subspecies of the African wild ass, onager (including the Mongolian wild ass) and kiang.
The Przewalski's horse was described in 1881 by L.S. Poliakov. The taxonomic position of Przewalski's horse has always been problematic and no consensus exists whether it is a full species (Equus przewalskii), a subspecies of the wild horse (Equus ferus przewalskii) or even a sub-population of the horse (Equus ferus). Studies using DNA have been inconclusive, in part due to crossing domestic horses into the Przewalski's horse as well as the limited genetic variation present in the founder population of the Przewalski's horse. A 2009 molecular study using ancient DNA (that is DNA recovered from archaeological finds like bones and teeth) places the Przewalski's horse in the middle of the domesticated horses, but more recent mitochondrial DNA analysis suggests that the Przewalski and the modern domestic horse diverged some 160,000 years ago. The karyotype of the domestic horse differs from that of Przewalski’s horse by an extra chromosome pair either because of the ﬁssion of domestic horse chromosome 5 in Przewalski’s horse or fusion of Przewalski’s horse chromosomes 23 and 24 in the domestic horse. In comparison, the chromosomal differences between domestic horses and zebras include numerous translocations, fusions, and inversions. Przewalski’s horse is known to have the highest diploid chromosome number among all equine species. Przewalski’s horse can interbreed with the domestic horse and produce fertile offspring (65 chromosomes)
The world population of these horses are all descended from 9 of the 31 horses in captivity in 1945. These nine horses were mostly descended from approximately 15 captured around 1900. A cooperative venture between the Zoological Society of London and Mongolian scientists has resulted in successful reintroduction of these horses from zoos into their natural habitat in Mongolia; and as of 2011 there is an estimated free-ranging population of over 300 in the wild. The total number of these horses according to a 2005 census was about 1,500.
Przewalski's horse is stockily built in comparison to domesticated horses, with shorter legs. Typical height is about 13 hands (52 inches, 132 cm), length is about 2.1 m (6 ft 11 in). They weigh around 300 kilograms (660 lb). The coat is generally dun in color with pangaré features, varying from dark brown around the mane (which stands erect) to pale brown on the flanks and yellowish-white on the belly and around the muzzle. The legs of Przewalski's horse are often faintly striped, also typical of primitive markings. The tail is about 90 cm (35.43 in) long, with a longer dock and shorter hair than seen in domesticated horses.
The patterns of their daily lives exhibit horse behavior similar to that of feral horse herds. Stallions herd, drive and defend all members of their family, while the mare often displays leadership in the family. Stallions and mares stay with their preferred partner for years.
Horses maintain visual contact with their family and herd at all times and have a host of ways to communicate with one another, including vocalizations, scent marking, and a huge range of visual and tactile signals. Each kick, groom, tilt of the ear or other contact with another horse are means of communicating. This constant communication leads to complex social behaviors among Przewalski's horses.
In the 15th century, Johann Schiltberger recorded one of the first European sightings of the horses in the journal of his trip to Mongolia as a prisoner of the Mongol Khan. The horse is named after the Russian colonel Nikolai Przhevalsky (1839–1888) (the name is of Polish origin and "Przewalski" is the Polish spelling). He was the explorer and naturalist who first described the horse in 1881, after having gone on an expedition to find it, based on rumors of its existence. Many of these horses were captured around 1900 by Carl Hagenbeck and placed in zoos. As noted above, about twelve to fifteen reproduced and formed today's population.
The native population declined in the 20th century due to a combination of factors, with the wild population in Mongolia dying out in the 1960s. The last herd was sighted in 1967 and the last individual horse in 1969. Expeditions after this failed to locate any horses, and the species was designated "extinct in the wild" for over 30 years.
After 1945 only two captive populations in zoos remained, in Munich and in Prague. The most valuable group, in Askania Nova, Ukraine, was shot by German soldiers during World War II occupation, and the group in the USA had died out.
By the end of the 1950s, only 12 individual Przewalski's horses were left in the world.
In 1992, sixteen horses were released into the wild in Mongolia, followed by additional animals later on. One of the areas to which they were reintroduced became Khustain Nuruu National Park in 1998. Another reintroduction site is Great Gobi B Strictly Protected Area, located at the fringes of the Gobi desert. Lastly, in 2004 and 2005, 22 horses were released by the Association Takh to a third reintroduction site in the buffer zone of the Khar Us Nuur National Park, in the northern edge of the Gobi ecoregion.
The reintroduced horses successfully reproduced, and the status of the animal was changed from "extinct in the wild" to "endangered" in 2005. On the IUCN Red List, they were reclassified from "extinct in the wild" to "critically endangered" after a reassessment in 2008 and from "critically endangered" to "endangered" after a 2011 reassessment.
The world's largest captive breeding program for Przewalski's horses is at the Askania Nova preserve in Ukraine. Several dozen Przewalski's horses were also released in the area evacuated after the Chernobyl accident, which now serves as a deserted de facto natural preserve.An intensely researched population of free-ranging animals was also introduced to the Hortobágy puszta in Hungary; data on social structure, behavior and diseases gathered from these animals is used to improve the Mongolian conservation effort.
Several American zoos also collaborated in breeding Equus ferus przewalskii from 1979 to 1982. Recent advances in equine reproductive science in the USA also have potential to further preserve and expand the gene pool. In October 2007, scientists at the Smithsonian Institution's National Zoo successfully reversed a vasectomy on a Przewalski's horse — the first operation of its kind on this species and possibly the first ever on any endangered species. While normally a vasectomy may be performed on an endangered animal under limited circumstances, particularly if an individual has already produced many offspring and its genes are overrepresented in the population, scientists realized the animal in question was one of the most genetically valuable Przewalski's horses in the North American breeding program.
Le Villaret, located in the Cevennes National Park in southern France and run by the Association Takh, is a breeding site for Przewalski Horses that was created to allow the free expression of natural Przewalski's horse behaviors. Eleven zoo born horses were brought to Le Villaret in 1993. Horses born there are adapted to life in the wild: they are free to choose their own mates and must forage on their own. Such a unique breeding site was necessary to produce the individuals that were reintroduced to Mongolia in 2004 and 2005. In 2012 there were 39 individuals at Le Villaret.
The Przewalski's Horse Reintroduction Project of China was initiated in 1985 when 11 wild horses were imported from overseas. After more than two decades of effort, the Xinjiang Wild Horse Breeding Centre has bred a large number of the horses, of which 55 were released into the Kalamely Mountain area. The animals quickly adapted to their new environment. In 1988, six foals were born and survived, and by 2001 there were over 100 horses at the centre.