The San Diego Zoo received its first Przewalski's horses, Roland, Belina and Bonnette, in 1966 from the Catskill Game Farm in New York, a zoo facility that had success with breeding these rare horses. One female, named Bolinda, was born to Bonnette in 1969, and another, named Belaya, to Bellina in 1970—our own breeding program for Przewalski's horses was off to a great start!
Over the years, we’ve had 149 Przewalski's horses born at the Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. In the 1970s, one of Belaya’s daughters appeared daily in the Safari Park’s amphitheater to show audiences the difference between domestic and wild horses.
Currently, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park has a dozen or so Przewalski's horses. The females and herd stallion live in a large enclosure beside the Asian field exhibit; they can be seen during a Behind-the-Scenes Safari or Cart Safari. Bachelor males live in an off-exhibit area. Both groups seem to have no problem with keepers coming into their space to deliver food. In fact, sometimes they’re waiting by the gate, but they are only interested in the keepers as food providers. Keepers witness herd dynamics on a daily basis. Food is placed in various troughs to keep fighting over it to a minimum. The females spend their days nuzzling and engaging in mutual grooming, rolling in the dust, and, of course, eating.
Przewalski's horses are native to a habitat called the steppe. Until 15,000 years ago, this immense and hardscrabble, sparse grassland habitat stretched from the east coast of Asia to present-day Spain and Portugal. After the last Ice Age, however, the steppe gave way to woods and forests to which Przewalski's horses weren't well adapted. By the 19th century, the few animals that remained were confined to Mongolia, southern Russia, and Poland.
In the early 20th century, farmers and livestock took over good grazing lands, forcing the Przewalski's horses into areas that weren't suitable for human use. Wealthy aristocrats and westerners were fascinated by the unusual horses and captured foals to keep as pets. Przewalski's horses were spotted in Mongolia into the 1980s but became extinct in the wild about that same time.
Luckily, a small number of Przewalski's horses remained, scattered about in various zoos around the world. All Przewalski's horses alive today are descendants of 14 horses captured at the beginning of the 20th century.
In 1977, the Foundation for the Preservation and Protection of the Przewalski's Horse was founded, and an exchange of animals between zoos throughout the world was started. In 1992, 16 horses were released into the wild in Mongolia, in an area that was later designated as Hustai National Park. As of 2011, the world's population of Przewalski's horses was about 1,400 animals, with 250 of those being free-ranging. New zoo-bred horses continue to be introduced to the wild population, now located in four reserves in Mongolia and Kazahkstan, as well as the Kalameili Reserve in northern China.
Since 1979, San Diego Zoo Global and a team of international scientists have been leading the way in breeding, conservation genetics, and reintroduction of Przewalski’s horses. Our scientists, in collaboration with researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, are studying the DNA of this endangered horse to determine genetic relationships in the remaining populations to guide decisions for the conservation of this species. The DNA sequence of a fossil horse, estimated to be over 500,000 years old, has been compared with the Przewalski’s horse genome, reinforcing the separate genetic identity of the Przewalski’s horse as an ancient lineage tracing to today’s animals now gaining a foothold in nature once again. Information obtained through genome sequencing studies will help structure breeding programs, maintain genetic diversity, and focus reintroduction efforts for the last truly wild horse.
You can help us bring Przewalski's horses and other species back from the brink by supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy. Together we can save and protect wildlife around the globe.