Przewalski’s horse was named after Colonel Nikolai Mikailovich Przewalski, a famous Russian explorer who rediscovered the species for western science in 1879.
The first written accounts of Przewalski’s horse originate from Tibet, recorded by the monk Bodowa, who lived around 900 AD. In the Secret History of the Mongols, there is also a reference to wild horses that crossed the path of Chinggis Khaan during his campaign against Tangut in 1226, causing his horse to rear and throw him to the ground. In a Manchurian dictionary of 1771, Przewalski’s horse is mentioned as “a wild horse from the steppe.”
Przewalski’s horse was not described in Linnaeus’s 1758 Systema Naturae and remained largely unknown in the West until first mentioned by John Bell, a Scottish doctor who travelled in the service of Tsar Peter the Great in 1719-1722. His account of the expedition, A Journey from St Petersburg to Peking, was published in 1763. Bell and subsequent observers all located horses known at that time within the area of 85-97°E and 43-50°N, the Chinese-Mongolian border.
Wild horses were reported again from what is now China by Colonel Nikolai Mikailovich Przewalski, an eminent Russian explorer, naturalist, and land surveyor, in 1897. He made several expeditions by order of Tsar Alexander the Second of Russia to Central Asia, aiming to reach Tibet. While returning from his second expedition in Central Asia, he was presented with the skull and hide of a horse shot about 80 kilometers north of Gutschen (in present-day China, around 40°N, 90°E). The remains were examined at the Zoological Museum of the Academy of Science in St Petersburg by I.S. Poliakov, who concluded that they were a wild horse, which he gave the official name Equus przewalskii, naming the species after the Colonel.
Further reports came from the brothers Grigory and Michael Grum-Grzhimailo, who travelled through western China from 1889-1890. In 1889, they discovered a group in the Gashun area and shot four horses: three stallions and a mare. The four hides and the skulls of the three stallions, together with an incomplete skeleton, were sent back to the Zoological Museum in St. Petersburg.
• Image | © Cloudtail the Snow Leopard, Some Rights Reserved, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
• Sources | Bokonyi, 1974; Denver Zoological Foundation, 1997; King, Boyd, Zimmermann, & Kendall, 2015; Gotch, 1979; Grzimek, 1990; Luu, 2002; Mohr, 1971