The takhi, also known as Przewalski’s horse after the Russian explorer who first described the small ungulate to Europeans, is native to the Mongolian Steppes, in central Asia. Small and stocky, typically dun or bay with faint striping, they are currently believed to be the long-feral descendants of horses domesticated by the Botai culture, which vanished in approximately 3100 BCE.
With the last known wild takhi captured in 1957, the species was considered extinct in the wild. Nearly so in captivity, too. Most of the captive takhis in the world were in Europe during World War II, and only nine survived. The current population, which is estimated to be close to 2,000, are all descended from those nine survivors and the single wild mare. Inbreeding-caused infertility has long been a plague to the species, slowing reintroduction efforts.
In early August, a new hope for the species was born. The first successfully cloned takhi was born on August 6, 2020, at a large animal vet in Texas. The foal was cloned from the DNA of a male takhi which was cryopreserved by the San Diego Zoo after its death in 1980. Clones tend to be fragile, so the zoo waited for a month to make the birth public, announcing it on September 6.
“The work to save endangered species requires collaborative and dedicated partners with aligned goals,” Paul A. Baribault, president of San Diego Zoo Global, said in a statement. “We share in this remarkable achievement because we applied our multidisciplinary approach, working with the best scientific minds and utilizing precious genetic material collected and stored in our wildlife DNA biobank.”
The takhi foal was named Kurt, after Kurt Benirschke, the founder of the San Diego Zoo Global Frozen Zoo, the biobank preserving the genetic material of endangered and extinct animals since the 1970s.
When Kurt is a little older, he will be integrated into the zoo’s safari park, where they have a herd of takhis selected for breeding.
Photo: A herd of tahkis in Hortobagy, Hungary. Photo: Shutterstock