Horses for courses
Last week I saw the wonderful Laurie Anderson perform her new piece – Landfall – with the equally wonderful Kronos Quartet. Part of the performance included a discursion on extinct animals. One in particular caught my eye – the Tarpan Horse (Equus ferus ferus).
“Wait,”, I thought to myself, “weren’t tarpans unextincted?”.
The Tarpan Horse was a Eurasian wild horse that disappeared in the early 20th century. Przewalski’s Horse (Equus ferus przewalskii) is now considered the only truly wild horse still in existence, though there are many diverse populations of feralised horses living wild.
Przewalski’s Horse managed to cling on to life though classified as extinct in the wild for nearly 40 years. All of the several hundred Przewalski’s Horses alive today are descended from only 13 or 14 individuals, which were the nucleus of a captive breeding program. As well as a number of sites in Mongolia, Przewalski’s horses were released into the Chernobyl exclusion zone in the 1990s. However this population now appears to be at risk from poachers seeking horse meat.
The last wild pureblooded tarpan was believed to have died evading capture in 1879, with the last domestic animal dying around 1918 in Poland. However, the tarpan died out through a combination of human predation, habitat loss and interbreeding with the domestic horse population. This means that tarpan genes may well have survived in living horses. There have been several attempts to bring back the tarpan, using the not uncontroversial method of back-breeding. At least three groups of back-bred “tarpans” were known to exist – the Konik, Heck and Stroebel horses.
The strongest candidate for surviving tarpan genes is probably the Konik horse. In fact, the Konik horse is treated by some scientists as a descendant of the Tarpan, and shares many of its characteristics. There is good evidence that a continuing population of small primitive horses with many wild tarpan characteristics was maintained in Poland from about 1780. In 1936, professor Tadeusz Vetulani set up a reserve in the Białowieża Forest National Park in an attempt to breed back the tarpan to its original state. Only 15 Polish Koniks survived World War II in Białowieża, but the experiment continued, and there are now more than 2,000 Konik Horses living wild.
The Heck horse had a darker history. Brothers Lutz and Heinz Heck cross-bred Konik stock from Białowieża with Icelandic Ponies, Swedish Gotlands, Polish Primitive Horses and Przewalski Horses in an effort to draw out the latent Tarpan characteristics.
According to the Smithsonian, Heck’s reasoning went like this:
even an extinct animal’s genes remain in the gene pool of closely related living species, so if he concentrated the genes by breeding animals that most resembled their extinct antecedents, in time he would re-create their ancestral forms. He was wrong—not all the genes survive, so extinct species cannot be revived through breeding—but the war gave him an excuse to loot East European zoos for the best specimens to mate with several wild strains, hoping to breed back to pure “Aryan” animals the fierce creatures painted in ocher on Cro-Magnon caves.
The Konik Horses were rounded up during World War II and transported to Munich and Berlin to support the Hecks’ program. The removal of the koniks was a great distress to Vetulani:
What the Hecks saw as the restoration of an ancient unity—the reconstruction of a lost “Germanic” species—was, for Vetulani, a “baffling” campaign of destruction. Bred from animals with eighteenth-century roots in the Białowieża forest, the Konik pony breeding program was, as Vetulani recounted, “meant to bring back to Białowieża her primeval inhabitant.” Lutz Heck’s decision to “uproot” the Koniks from Białowieża “thus brutally stopped the breeding experiment.”
Despite being widely described as a tarpan, the Heck Horse’s link to the original tarpan is dubious. It not only reflects the Heck brothers’ idiosyncratic notion of what a Tarpan should be, but bears the taint of Nazi eugenic policy. The Hecks were operating in that deeply discomforting and now discredited Lorenzian worldview which equated domestication with degeneration. They sought to breed back to what they considered a less degenerate and wilder form of animal.
However, the Heck Horse did have its proponents, including the North American Tarpan Association. The American Heck Horses derived from a group of four transferred from Munich Zoo in the 1960s. Sadly, this group seems to have faded into the mists. A small group of these animals surfaced briefly in Saskatchewan in 2008 and were shown on CTV. It was then estimated there were only 100 Heck Horses remaining. Heck Horses do however still live in Germany, for example at the Sababurg Deerpark.
The third candidate, the Stroebel Horse, was an ongoing experiment by the late Harry Hegardt in back breeding. Hegardt’s horses had no connection at all to the Polish tarpans. Hegardt was breeding to concentrate Sorraian genes believed to be present in American Mustang herds. After his death, the herd of some 20 animals was taken over by the Stroebels. To their credit, the Stroebels maintained that they were interested in breeding a horse that only looked like a tarpan, rather than a horse that genetically was a tarpan. This, for some reason, was seized on by creationists as evidence that evolution is a bankrupt theory.
Unfortunately the Stroebel herd also seems to have vanished into obscurity. The business, Genesis Equines, no longer exists and there has been no press coverage of these horses in the last 10 years.
So was I right and Laurie Anderson wrong? Was the Tarpan horse really unextincted? Was it ever really extinct? The definition of extinct seems pretty black & white – no living individual member of a species survives. However there seems to be no evidence that the Tarpan Horse was ever a separate species. The main question seems to be whether enough tarpan genes survived in the Białowieża horses for their descendants to be considered Tarpan Horses, or whether that sub-species of Eurasian horses really died out.