A horse that has not been seen in the wild for nearly a quarter of a century will be returned to its native Mongolia beginning in 1993, a San Diego zoologist will announce Thursday.
Recent political reforms in Mongolia and the Soviet Union have paved the way for as many as 20 Przewalski's horses to be returned in 1993 to the Gobi desert, where they have not been seen since 1968, said Oliver Ryder of the Zoological Society of San Diego's Center for Reproduction of Endangered Species.
The horse would become only the fourth species to be reintroduced to its natural habitat after extinction in the wild. The black-footed ferret was reintroduced to Wyoming earlier this month. The Arabian oryx was reintroduced in the 1970s to Oman and the European Bison to the Bialowieza National Forest in Poland in 1929.
The program, slated to cost about $3 million, will place about 40 horses into a semi-desert steppe region in southwest Mongolia over the next five years, Ryder said.
No more than 150 of the horses existed when they became extinct in the wild in 1968, San Diego Zoo officials said. But the tan horses with white muzzles have thrived in captivity and now number 1,100.
The largest collection of Przewalski's horse is in the Ukraine, with more than 150 horses making up the herd, Ryder said. The San Diego Wild Animal Park near Escondido houses 34 of the animals, while the San Diego Zoo has four, including a newborn, said Ryder, adding that it is likely that some of the San Diego animals will be involved in the repopulation program.
Ryder, who returned last week from a trip to the Soviet Union as part of the Przewalski's Horse Global Management Plan Working Group, said that nation's recent revolution has removed barriers to repopulating the only true wild horse in the world.
"The whole thing was mired down in Soviet politics and mired in the fact that it was going to have to be coordinated in the Soviet Union," Ryder said.
But, after holding its first free elections last year, Mongolia is ready to implement the program independent of the Soviet Union.
"The situation has changed dramatically, in the first place because the Soviet Union is no more, and secondly because Mongolia has really strongly asserted its independence," Ryder said.
The Mongolians first expressed interest in repopulating the species in 1985 and reaffirmed their interest last year. At that point, the international working group was formed to represent and coordinate the 100 locations in the world where the horses are kept.
The horse was first seen by non-Asians in 1881 when Russian explorer N.M. Przewalski discovered a carcass of the animal. Not until the turn of the century, when the Duke of Bedford captured and bred the horses at his preserve in England did scientists begin to study the animals.
Scientists believe the horse became extinct because of competition with domesticated animals for limited water supplies in the Gobi Desert and the disruptions caused by military strife along the China-Mongolia border, Ryder said.
After Mongolia broke free from China and became an independent nation in 1920, it allied itself with the Soviet Union, adopting many of its political and economic policies, including collective farming and animal husbandry in what was a country of mostly nomads, Ryder said.
The population surrounding the oases in the Gobi grew, and domesticated cattle competed with the Przewalski's horses for water and vegetation. The people in the area saw the horses as pests usable only for their skin and meat.
Biologists acknowledge, however, that their information on Przewalski's horses is incomplete, and they have little information on their behavior in the wild.
"Having saved this species through captive breeding, zoological parks in the world have a very strong conviction to re-establish this species in the wild," Ryder said. "At the same time, they understand that they have to do this in a scientifically responsible way."
Although several scientists will be involved in the repopulation project, much of the monitoring will be conducted by Mongolians, despite relatively little scientific training in the area.
"From the Mongolian aspect, they have mastered the handling of domestic species for a millennia. They are a people whose cultural fabric is intimately associated with the horse," Ryder said.
Ryder is scheduled to announce the rare repopulation program to a gathering of zoo directors and curators Thursday at the national conference of the American Assn. of Zoological Parks and Aquariums in San Diego.