In the harsh desert steppe of far northwestern China five prehistoric-looking Przewalski’s horses, once classed as extinct in the wild, emerge from the endless plains.
The horses — named after a Russian officer and explorer who spotted them around 1880 — bear a striking resemblance to those depicted in European cave paintings, with short necks, spiky manes and a yellow hue.
They graze calmly on a few strands of straw as the wind whips across the vast, open landscape.
“These ones here, they can be approached. The others will run away as soon as you get within 300 yards of them,” says Sun Zhicheng, an official at the 1.6-million-acre West Lake national nature reserve.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, Przewalski’s horses once roamed as far as Western Europe.
But as the centuries passed, climatic change reduced their habitat and the remainder were so widely hunted, mainly for food, that they were classified as extinct in the wild in 1960 — although a living specimen was later found in Mongolia.
But a few survived in European zoos, and now efforts are under way to reintroduce them to the wild.
The Chinese project near Xihu in Gansu province faces daunting challenges — freezing winters, sweltering summers and limited supplies of food and water.
According to Chinese legend, Sun says, the animals were discovered two millennia ago by an exiled criminal around the oasis of Dunhuang, a crossroads on the Silk Road.
“A man had been convicted and banished from Dunhuang. While he was walking near a lake he saw one of these horses.
“He made a mannequin and put it on a path the horse would follow. One day he took the place of the mannequin, and he was able to catch the horse to offer it to the emperor.
Habitat for Horses is a 501.c.3 nonprofit equine protection organization supported solely by donations. As of this morning, we have 156 donkeys and horses under our care, plus one mule. Most of them are here because law enforcement removed them from their previous owner. Our ability to rehabilitate and rehome them comes from the financial support of people like you. Please support us by making a donation for the horses we all serve. Click HERE to donate