October 22, 2017

The Last True Wild Horses

Maryland is famous for its herd of wild horses on Assateague Island, but did you know that they are not true wild horses? As descendants of domestic animals, these “wild” horses are actually feral. Found in Mongolia, the last true wild horses in the world are known as Przewalski’s horses (pronounced cha-VAL-skee’s), and they are critically endangered.

Przew Horse Smithsonian Screenshot
Screenshot from https://nationalzoo.si.edu/animals/przewalskis-horse

This summer, I served as a Safari Day Camp Senior Class Aide at Smithsonian’s National Zoo, where Przewalski’s horse is on exhibit just over the Maryland state line in Washington, DC. When I was younger, I was a Safari Day Camper myself where I learned about animal behavior observation. When I returned this year as a Class Aide, I decided I would observe the Przewalski’s horse exhibit since I thought we could learn about wild horses together.

Przewalski’s horses closely resemble domesticated horses in overall shape but are stockier with a thick neck and large head. Pony sized, usually 12-14 hands, they have spiked up manes like zebras. Similar in color to a buckskin, the nose and belly are lighter, and a dark stripe extends from the mane to the tail.

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Smithsonian’s National Zoo Przewalski’s horse exhibit
(photo by Holden Rafey)

To see how they behaved, I observed the Przewalski’s horse exhibit for 15 minutes daily for ten days. To record my observations, I downloaded an animal observation app called Observe to Learn that prompted me to record the horse’s actions every 30 seconds during the 15 minute time interval, and it would even graph each day’s data for me. This helped me to visually organize the animal’s activity for the duration of the observation.

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Chart & Data from “Observe to Learn” for July 31, 2017

As I suspected, Przewalski’s horse behaves much like a domestic horse in a paddock with food and a shelter, though perhaps more like a shy horse than a social one.

Next, I researched the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s (SCBI) efforts to save Przewalski’s horses. On Saturday, October 7th I attended Conservation Discovery Day at SCBI in Front Royal, VA. This event is the only time each year that the institute is open to the public. I listened to talks about various threatened species and toured the facility, enjoying its beautiful setting. From a hilltop, I observed several equid species in their fields using high-powered spotting scopes.

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The view of SCBI from “racetrack hill” overlooking the facility
(photo by Holden Rafey)

At the Ungulates (hooved animals) Conservation research demonstration, I spoke with Dr. Budhan Pukazhenthi, a reproductive physiologist at SCBI’s Center for Species Survival. Dr. Pukazhenthi completed his graduate studies at the University of Maryland (UMD) and is the recipient of the UMD College of Agriculture and Natural Resources Outstanding Alumni Award. Dr. Pukazhenthi and his team monitor the institute’s female ungulate populations for fertility and use natural breeding and artificial insemination techniques to help the populations grow.

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Dr. Pukazhenthi (standing) and his team providing their Ungulates Conservation research
demonstration as part of SCBI’s
Conservation Discovery Day
(photo by Holden Rafey)

Later, I attended Dr. Pukazhenthi’s lecture and Powerpoint presentation on Ungulate Conservation, where I learned more about the institute’s work to save several ungulate species. Dr. Pukazhenthi emphasized how important it is to preserve these species, but it can be difficult to engage the public since ungulates aren’t as flashy as lions and tigers, which Dr. Pukazhenthi has also worked to save. It is hoped that through breeding and re-introduction, Przewalski’s horses will again thrive in the wilds of Mongolia.

Dr. Pukazhenthi generously contributed the following information for me to share:

The Przewalski’s horse, the last true wild equid (horse), once roamed the steppes and deserts of Mongolia and China, but went extinct in nature in the 1970s with the exception of a few horses in western Zoos.  The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute & National Zoological Park (SCBI) is a world leader in linking scientific studies of the Przewalski’s horse in zoos to the recovery and reintroduction of the species back into the wild.  Working with European zoos, SCBI is helping to place this species back into the mountain-steppe landscape of Mongolia and China’s Gobi Desert while simultaneously conducting high-tech scientific studies at SCBI and at other North America zoos to improve reproduction and produce healthy offspring. SCBI scientists are using cutting edge technology and analysis to study the movement ecology of this species in the wild in a multi-species, multi-disciplinary collaborative project with international researchers. SCBI specialists also are working with local people in China and Mongolia who are most affected by this major conservation initiative. SCBI scientists also were the first to produce live foals using artificial insemination in this species.

Dr. Pukazhenthi concludes, “For the future, I envision a robust population in the wild and in zoos globally. I also predict routine application of reproductive technologies such as artificial insemination including using frozen sperm for genetic management of the Przewalski’s horse.”

I have considerable knowledge of domesticated horses, but I am now glad to say that I know a bit about wild horses, too. I hope, like me, you find this animal fascinating and will support conservation efforts to save the last truly wild horse from extinction.

ABOUT OUR BLOGGER:

Holden Rafey Bio Pic

My name is Holden Rafey, and I am honored to be serving as the Maryland Horse Council’s Youth Correspondent. As the MHC Youth Correspondent, I will be posting monthly to this blog about horse-related topics in the state of Maryland to give a youth perspective and share information of interest to MHC youth members and young readers. I live in Montgomery County and attend Walter Johnson High School, where I play softball and field hockey. My equestrian trainer is Melinda Cohen, and I ride at her barn, Dream Catcher Farm, in Frederick County. In addition to being the Youth Correspondent for the MHC, I am serving a third term on the Washington International Horse Show Junior Committee and have served as an intern for the American Horse Council.

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