Wild Horses: Return to China

2004, Nature  -  50 min Leave a Comment
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On the road to freedom a convoy of exiles begins a long and difficult journey home. Rarer than the endangered panda, Przewalski's horses are about to return to the wild. They're headed to the geographic hearth of Asia, west China's vast dry grasslands.

It's been a long time since a herd of Przewalski's horses has run wild there. These horses are descendant from stock taken to Europe in 19th century. Herds have already been reintroduced in neighboring Mongolia but this will be the first Chinese release.

Scientists hope that they'll adjust to wild grass as soon after their liberation. Still feeding on their mothers' milk the herd's young foals have no such worries. They won't have to fend for themselves until they're nearly a year old. On a late autumn day a century of life in captivity ends with a simple act of opening a gate. Despite the occasion there's a cold note of apprehension in the air... freedom comes at a price.

To survive the horses must endure some severe challenges: summer drought, winter cold and predators. Returning there will test the horses' loyalties as well as their instincts. They must adapt to the conditions and work together for their survival as their ancestor once did.

For millions of years the steppes of Eurasia were home to wild horses. Then around 4000 BC men began to capture and domesticate them. The wild horse became a forgotten breed until 1879 when a Russian naturalist rediscovered them along the border between Mongolia and China.

Some were captured and taken to Europe. But hunting and interbreeding with domesticated stock continued and in 20th century Przewalski's horse became extinct in the wild. Three months after its release the herd faces its first winter. In the arid hearth of Asia the winters can last as long as six months but this horse is built to cope.