The last surviving subspecies of undomesticated horse, extinct in the wild for nearly 50 years, is making a slow recovery in Mongolia.
The comeback of the Przewalski—regarded as the last of the truly wild horse species—is due largely to the dogged determination of Claudia Feh. For the past quarter-century, the Swiss environmentalist has led efforts to reestablish Przewalskis on the Mongolian steppe, where they once thrived.
The Przewalski (pronounced shuh-Val-skee) has been around for more than 100,000 years. But the squat, stubby-legged horse was little known outside of Eurasia until the 15th century and wasn't widely known by its current name until it was popularized in the 1880s by Russian explorer Nikolai Przhevalsky.
Too wild to be domesticated—in captivity, Przewalski stallions were aggressive, often fought each other, and killed foals—their numbers were decimated by habitat loss and hunters by the early 1900s. By 1950, they were mostly found in zoos. Scientists believe the last Przewalski in the wild was gone by the 1960s.
Feh, a Rolex Laureate, began plotting their comeback in the wild in the early 1990s, building a small herd in southern France using 11 genetically compatible Przewalskis acquired from European zoos. Contrary to expert opinion, she allowed them to live together freely, mate naturally, and form their own social groupings.
By September 2004, Feh felt comfortable enough with their social and free-range behavior to begin airlifting them to Mongolia. They were settled in Khomyn Tal, a remote region of western Mongolia near Khar Us Nuur National Park that’s bounded by lakes, rivers, and sand dunes.
Feh was inspired to study wild horses as a teen, when she saw 17,000-year-old paintings of Przewalski’s horses in France’s Lascaux Caves. She eventually became an expert on free-roaming breeds. “I wasn’t just impressed with the beauty of the horses but [also with] all the other animals that existed at the same time in our world that have now disappeared,’’ Feh says. “That just touched me.”
She hopes the project will lead to sustainable, independent herds. Her efforts and those of two other programs that have reintroduced the Przewalski to Mongola—the Foundation for the Preservation of the Przewalski Horse and the International Takhi Group—have helped upgrade its status from extinct in the wild to endangered.
“What we’re trying to do is save a species,’’ Feh says. “This is a start, not the end, of the project.”