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World's Last Wild Horse Returns to Russian Steppes

The path out of oblivion for the Przewalski's horse, extinct in the wild just two decades ago, leads to a landscape of deep snow and icy winds.

If the world's only surviving wild horses had a say in the matter, they might opt for a cosy stable and fresh daily oats, scientists studying them joke.

But the path out of oblivion for the species known as Przewalski's horse – which only two decades ago was extinct in the wild - lies in getting on a plane to China, Mongolia and, most recently, the Russian steppes with their deep snow and icy winds.

Six animals born at a reserve in the south of France are now spending their first winter in Russia's flagship reintroduction project for the species.

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Eventually scientists hope to have 100 of the endangered animals on the site in the Orenburg Reserves, a cluster of six strictly protected nature areas along the border with Kazakhstan.

The area spanning more than 16,500 hectares (40,770 acres) is "the largest unbroken, strictly protected plot of virgin steppe in Russia," safeguarded, ironically, by the fact that it belonged to the military for decades, said Przewalski's horse expert Tatjana Zharkikh, who heads the reintroduction project.

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"They are quite happy," she told AFP in an interview, despite the harsh climate in the region, with extreme snowfall which in January trapped several drivers on a local highway, leading to a man's death.

The animals actually enjoy rolling around in the snow, scratching their backs on the crusty surface, she said. "They are not afraid of wind, snow, cold .. If the Przewalski's horse has enough food, it is practically invincible."

Yet, she quipped: "If you ask them, they will tell you: we want a warm stable, daily oats, fresh grass and maybe strawberries and cream. But this is a wild animal and it has to be in its natural habitat."

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Despite its hardiness and monumental efforts by conservationists to save the endangered species, there is "still a long way before the Przewalski's horse can be considered saved from extinction," said Frederic Joly of the Association for the Przewalski's horse (TAKH) in France, which provided the animals for the Orenburg project.

Native to China, the stocky, tan-coloured horse with a spiky mane once inhabited the Eurasian steppe extending through Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

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The species was discovered by Russian explorer Nikolai Przhevalsky who described it in the 19th century, leading to a surge of interest in Europe, followed by a brutal campaign to capture these animals.

Herds were chased down to exhaustion to capture the young foals, said Zharkikh, but in the end the process secured enough animals to save the species after they had gone extinct in their natural habitat.

All 2,000 animals existing today are descendants of just 12 wild-caught horses, including a mare from Mongolia called Orlitsa, gifted to Soviet chairman Kliment Voroshilov during a visit in 1957, and breeding a viable population from such a limited gene pool has been a headache.

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Adding to that headache is the fact that the Przewalski's horse can breed with domestic horses to produce fertile hybrids, threatening to dilute the species decades down the line.

Although the Russian project meant to set the horses completely free in the wild, scientists eventually rejected this idea as too risky after studying the experience of other reintroduction centres, opting instead to build a fence around the entire area.

The problem is, young mares who venture out of a protected park can breed with horses kept by herders in nearby villages and then bring hybrid offspring back to the population of Przewalski's horses.

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"Even a few hybrids can cancel out all conservation efforts," said Zharkikh. "What is the point of protection if they are just cute shaggy-haired horses rather than a species?"

A wild population would only work if the protected area is much larger, she said, 100,000 hectares or even more, and if such a park is created in the future, it can be populated with Przewalski's horses from the project.

"Our goal is to form a reserve of genetically pure animals," said Rafilya Bakirova, director of Orenburg Reserves that hosts the project, dreaming of expanding the project and cross-border cooperation with Kazakhstan.

"For now we just want to survive the winter," she said.

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Although the species is considered a conservation success, Joly of the TAKH association in France conceded that it is becoming nearly impossible to find a place where Przewalski's horse can be truly wild.

"Even sites that look wild like Russian or Mongolian steppes are not completely devoid of human activity," he said.

"It indeed shows that there are very few places with no human influence in the world."

Descendants of the world's last known wild horses are remarkably different from domesticated horses, with a new genetic study showing that the two groups went their separate evolutionary ways 45,000 years ago. The existent horses with true wild ancestry, Przewalski's (pronounced shuh-VAL-skee's) horses, even have a different number of chromosomes, according to the study that is published in Current Biology. The research found that genes involved in metabolism, cardiac disorders, muscle contraction, reproduction, behavior and signaling pathways differ between

Przewalski's horses

and domesticated horses. All of these differences would tend to support that Przewalski's horses represent an entirely unique species, but because these mammals can produce fertile offspring after mating with domesticated horses, they are considered as a different population, but not as a different species. Animal experts have debated the issue for years. "The debate comes from the fact that first, Przewalski's horses do not look like domestic horses," senior author Ludovic Orlando of the University of Copenhagen's Natural History Museum of Denmark told Discovery News. He continued, "They have a dun coat color (no fancy colors, for instance), they are quite stockily built, their face looks more robust, and they are rather aggressive. They have never been successfully domesticated, perhaps in relation with their strong temper."

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For the study, lead author Clio Der Sarkissian, Orlando and their team sequenced the complete genomes of 11 Przewalski's horses, including all of the founding lineages and five historical, museum specimens dating back more than a century. They then compared the results to the genomes of 28 domesticated horses.

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Przewalski's horses, like this one, only number 2000 now. Like wolves versus dogs, these horses remained wild while others were changed by domestication. "Przewalski's horses were not known outside of Mongolia prior to their discovery during the expeditions of

Colonel Przhevalsky

(a Russian explorer) in the 1870s and 1880s," Orlando said. "Following their discovery, Przewalski's horses became of considerable interest for zoos, and many expeditions were mounted to catch those animals." Unfortunately, many of the horses did not survive the arduous journeys, and some were killed in zoos that were bombed during subsequent wars. In Mongolia, hunting, habitat degradation and other problems eventually led to the horse's extinction there. A captive stock of just 12 to 15 founders has resulted in the population of 2000 now, which Orlando believes "is a true success story for conservation."

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Horses have always fascinated humans, as shown by cave art such as this, found at Lascaux, France. It dates to about 17,300 years ago, long before evidence of the first domestication of horses starts to appear in the fossil record. "The earliest evidence of horse domestication gets back to 5,500 years ago, at

Botai, Kazakhstan

, where archaeologists such as Alan Outram have excavated evidence of early horse harnessing, milking and morphological changes," Orlando said. "This is most often taken as the earliest evidence of horse domestication." He added that at Botai, 99 percent of the animal remains found in bone assemblages come from horses. "Clearly, humans were eating them at the very least, so meat was an early motivation," he explained. "Then, of course, there is evidence for harnessing. Much later, horses will be used for pulling war chariots, (for the) cavalry, and in farming for pulling ploughs."

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Przewalski's horses such as these were reintroduced to what are now reserves. While they are fenced off, the spaces are usually vast and there is very little interaction between horses and humans. Claudia Feh, who took this photo, said, "I've always been interested in free-living horses, and the Przewalski is the world's last truly wild horse." She reintroduced a small herd of the horses to Mongolia in 2004. The horses must fend for themselves, grazing on their own and dealing with rodents, snakes and other animals that exist in their habitat.

Photos: Strange Animals Reveal the Bizarre Past of Horses

The common ancestor of Przewalski's horses, such as this one, and domesticated horses remains a mystery for now. Cave art suggests that there were other, more fanciful early horse species, such as muscular horses with multiple spots. These depictions and others strongly suggest that coat variation happened long before humans began selectively breeding horses for particular coat colors and patterns. Many of the early horses died out, however. For example, researchers working last year in Central Siberia found evidence for a population of wild horses that lived in the region from about 16,000 to 43,000 years ago. Those horses are now extinct.

Horses Communicate With Their Eyes and Ears

Mustangs

(shown here) are often referred to as wild horses, but since they are descended from once-domesticated horses, they are technically feral and not wild. Nevertheless, mustangs can roam free in certain parts of the United States. In 1971, the U.S. Congress recognized that mustangs and free-roaming burros "are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West, which continue to contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people."

All horses are extremely social and intelligent animals that may form lifelong bonds with others. In the wild, Orlando said, "They live in permanent family groups (called harems), dominated by one adult stallion, and including a number of mares and their offspring." "Bachelor stallions, and old stallions can form bachelor groups," he added. "The dominant stallion in a group herds and defends his group. They are, compared to domestic horses, more aggressive, as they have never been domesticated."

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Foals are always a good sign that reserve populations are on the upswing, but even when breeding does happen, there can be long-lasting problems. Orlando said that it is almost impossible to avoid inbreeding, such that researchers work to prevent mating between horse parents and the older offspring of these animals. Conservationists are also trying to limit the influence of domestic ancestry that has already entered into the Przewalski horse population. The latest research offers hope, though. "Now that we have whole genomes," Orlando explained, "we can quantify which genes have accumulated deleterious mutations and can try to favor lineages devoid of such mutations."

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Greger Larson, who is director of Oxford University's Paleogenomics & Bio-Archaeology Research Network, told Discovery News that the study "shows what you can do when you harness the power of full genome sequences." Next, Orlando and his colleagues, along with other research teams, hope to conduct additional DNA studies to reconstruct the gene pool of horses and other animals just prior to their domestication.

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