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Reintroduction of tarpans


In 1784 Pieter Boddaert named the Tarpan under Latin name Equus ferus, referring to Gmelin's description of this animal. Even earlier, Linnaeus named the domestic horse Equus caballus in 1758. The Tarpan (Equus ferus) and the domestic horse (Equus caballus) belong to the same species. They have different Latin names because the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature allowed the usage of different Latin names for 17 wild species, which were domestificated.


The tarpan was about 130 cm high at the withers. It was mouse-grey in colour, with a well-developed black mid-dorsal stripe, partly falling mane, and a slightly concave facial profile. The name 'tarpan' derived from the Turkmen language and means 'wild horse'.

History & Population 

We know from archaeological remains and cave paintings that wild horses have lived in Europe for a long time. Wild horses, probably several different subspecies and species, roamed the open plains of Europe, Asia, North America and North Africa during the late Pleistocene. By the end of the last Ice Age the range of the wild horse was much reduced, probably due to the climatic and vegetational shift (e.g. forests grew) as well as an increase in the human population. In the Near and Middle East wild horses disappeared a few thousand year ago. Wild horses survived in Sweden until the early Holocene and may have existed in England at the time of the Roman invasion. Wild horses were known in the Rhineland until at least the 13th century. In historic times only two subspecies survived, both in Eurasia: the tarpan (Equus ferus ferus) in Eastern Europe and the Mongolian wild horse or Przewalski's horse (Equus ferus przewalskii) in Mongolia.

Samuel Gottlieb Gmelin provided the first detailed of the tarpan. In 1769, Gmelin killed a stallion and two mares, together with a domestic mare that had run wild with the herd, and captured a hybrid and a purebred foal in the region of Bobrovsk, near Voronezh, Russia. The last tarpan herds greadually dwindled, because feral domestic horses bred with them, while peasants who tamed and crossbred them with their local domestic horses captured tarpans too. Beside that, tarpans were extensively hunted.

Many of the last so-called tarpans were probably wild-domestic hybrids or even feral domestic horses. These hybrids or feral horses were sometimes seen as tarpans when sighted. Because of this it is not possible to determine its extinction date well. Different sources mention different extinction dates.

In 1814, a tarpan was seen in Konigsberg, Lithuania and the forest populations in Latvia were extirpated in 1814. The last tarpans in the forests of Poland were sighted between 1810 and 1820 . Supposedly, the last tarpan in the wild, a mare, died in the Tavrichesk steppe 35 km from Askaniya Nova in the Ukraine in December 1879. It fell down a crevasse, while attempting to avoid capture. It is claimed that the last tarpan went extinct in Poland in 1918 or 1919, apparently captive-bred animals were maintained on stud farms until that time.

Extinction Causes 

The extinction of the tarpan was caused by the absorption into a growing domestic horse population and hunting of remaining wild tarpans.

Asian Wild Horse or Przewalski's Horse

Przewalski's Horse, Asian Wild Horse or Mongolian Wild Horse (Equus ferus przewalskii) is a rare and endangered subspecies of Wild Horse (Equus ferus) native to the steppes of central Asia. It is the only surviving wild horse subspecies. At one time extinct in the wild, it has been reintroduced to its native habitat in Mongolia at the Khustain Nuruu National Park, Takhin Tal Nature Reserve and Khomiin Tal. The taxonomic position is still debated, and some taxonomists treat Przewalski's Horse as a species - Equus przewalskii.

The world population of these horses are all descended from 9 of the 31 horses in captivity in 1945. These nine horses were mostly descended from approximately 15 captured around 1900. A cooperative venture between the Zoological Society of London and Mongolian scientists has resulted in successful reintroduction of these horses from zoos into their natural habitat in Mongolia; and as of 2005 there is a free-ranging population of 248 animals in the wild. The total number of these horses according to a 2005 census was about 1,500.

Restoration of the Tarpan trough selective Breeding 

The last tarpan with pure tarpan genes has disappeared, but many of the horses in Central Europe retained some tarpan genes, because these domestic horses or their ancestors were crossbred with the wild tarpan. In Poland these horses are called “koniks”, which means “small horse”, but refers to several breeds. These koniks show many primitive features, for example one breed has the dun coat and dorsal stripe, and are called “Bilgoraj koniks”. The Bilgoraj konik has become the target for scientists attempting to recreate the tarpan. The koniks are the direct descendents of the extinct tarpan. However, also other re-breeding attempts are known. The recreated wild horses are resistant to harshness of climate, a prolific breeder that rarely aborts, great fertility, a strong immune system, its wound heals without attention, it is used to foraging in the wild, and can live on next to nothing. However these recreations  resembles the extinct wild Tarpan in its skeleton, colour type, there is no genetic evidence that these modern "tarpans" are really the same as the extinct Tarpan.

Konik horse

Around 1780, the last tarpans in Poland were brought to the manor farm of the Zamojski  counts in the town of Zwierzyniec near Biłgoraj. In 1806, the counts turned these tarpans over to local peasants. About 100 years later it was discovered by research that small primitive horses with many wild tarpan characteristics still survived in the area. In the 1920, these primitive horses drew the attention of Tadeusz Vetulani, a Jagiellonian University graduate subsequently a professor at Poznań University. He named these horses "Polish koniks". They were short, some 110–130 cm high at the shoulder, frequently having a dun (mouse-gray) coat and a dark stripe down their backs, and often striped limbs. Two koniks, a stallion called “Tref” and a mare called “Czajka”, even turned white in winter, but face, fetlocks, mane and tail retained the dark colour. In 1936, professor Tadeusz Vetulani set up a reserve in the Białowieża Forest National Park where he brought the Polish koniks most similar to the wild tarpan. Vetulani tried to demonstrate experimentally the sylvan origins of the Polish koniks in an attempt to breed back the tarpan to its original state. He hypothesized that a forest variety of the tarpan (Equus caballus gmelini Ant., forma silvatica Vet.) living in Poland, Lithuania and Prussia had split of from the steppe populations of Eastern Europe. During World War II, halve of these horse were transported to Germany and most of them became lost. In 1945, Vetulani found that only 15 Polish Koniks survived in Białowieża, but continued his breeding experiment. After his dead in 1952, most of his Polish koniks were moved to a forest reserve alongside an existing breeding farm in Popielno, where the experiment continued. On 1 January 1955, the entire stud in Popielno was turned over to the Polish Academy of Sciences. The Polish koniks in the reserve live in complete freedom and most hippologists agree that such reserve breeding is essential if the traits the Polish koniks inherited from their wild tarpan ancestors are to be preserved. The Popielno Research Station of the Polish Academy of Sciences maintains the most genetically diverse herd of koniks. Currently koniks are found in several other European countries, like in several nature reserves and parks in the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and Latvia.

Heck horse

The German zoologist and Director of the Berlin Zoo, professor Lutz Heck, and Heinz Heck who was working at the Tierpark Hellabrunn (Munich Zoo), started in the early 1930’s a selective breeding programme in the hope of bringing back the extinct tarpan. They crossbred Gotland horses, koniks, Iceland ponies and Przewalski’s horses. The first bred back "tarpan" or Heck horse, a colt, was born on 22 May 1933 at the Tierpark Hellabrunn in Munich, Germany. These horses still survive as Heck Horses or German tarpans.

Hegardt or Stroebel's horse

In the mid-1960s, Harry Hegardt started in Redmond (Oregon, USA) a selective breeding project dedicated to recreate the extinct Tarpan from diluted genes still found in North American feral mustangs herds and in working horses on local ranches. He started to get the right colour, the right size and then he even started getting the stand-up mane. Harry Hegardt died in 1990. His herd of 20 horses were bought by Lenette and Gordon Stroebel who continued his project on their ranch in Prineville (Oregon, USA). They eventually named their ranch Genesis Equines. Like Hegardt, the Stroebels believe that strong Tarpan genes lie hidden in the wild mustang herds. That’s because those mustangs are descendants of horses that escaped from Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s. It is assumed that the Spanish conquistadors took some horses with Sorraia (a primitive Iberian horse breed probably closely related to the tarpan) origins to the Americas, as there has been mtDNA evidence that has found Sorraian gentotypes in a couple of feral horse groups of western USA. The Stroebels capture feral horses from the wild, animals with characteristics of the extinct tarpan, and breed them to draw out these characteristics. The future of the herd is uncertain, depending on whether or not a suitable source of new genetic material is found, but the Stroebels are hopeful and proud of their little herd of unique horses.

Sorraia Horse, a remnant Iberian population?

Another very close relative is most likely the Sorraia horse. These horses are a remnant population of an indigenous, South Iberian wild horse, which survived almost pure in the inaccessible lowlands of the Portuguese river Sorraia until the early 1900s. The Iberian scientist and horse expert Dr. Ruy d’Andrade discovered these horses in 1920. All Sorraias descend from only 11 or 12 animals that d’Andrade secured in the 1930s and now only some 200 are alive today, which are mostly in private hands. Dr. d’Andrade never claimed his Sorraia to be pure anymore, but he hoped to breed them back to near purity by keeping them isolated on his estate. Beside the Asian wild horse, the tarpan is recognized by many as a wild subspecies (some recognise more). DNA-analyses seem to indicate a close relationship between the Sorraia horse and the tarpan. If further research confirms what first tests have shown, then the Sorraia is an Iberian regional variant of the tarpan, a remnant of an Iberian Tarpan population.


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