Until 1996, the ancient horse you see above was designated as extinct in the wild. By 2008, their condition had been upgraded to critically endangered, and today, the IUCN notes that Przewalski's horse population continues to increase. Here's how it happened — and the role zoos played in bringing them back.
Today, we were joined by the senior curator from the National Zoo, Brandie Smith to answer our questions about the Zoo and its behind-the-scenes workings. One of the most interesting questions revolved around the role zoos play for animals nearing extinction. Here, Smith explains how it worked for Przewalski's horse and some of the other species the Zoo has recently worked with:
How have the genetics of zoo populations fared over the years? It is my understanding that many zoos are try to keep a varied genetic profile among their animals to have a healthy population. Would the genetics stored at zoos ever be able to be used to help repopulate animals in the wild?
We have hundreds of breeding programs called Species Survival Plans that exist to maximize genetic management and demographic stability in zoo and aquarium populations. We track the pedigrees of our animals back to the wild and make breeding recommendations based on the best genetic matches (and, of course, behavioral compatibility). Zoos populations have already been used to help repopulate animals in the wild and there are several species on the planet that exist because of zoos. That's important, so I have to repeat it — there are species that were once extinct in the wild, but they now exist there because zoos saved them. I have to brag about the National Zoo a bit here, because we have played a large part in saving several species from extinction, including black footed ferrets, Arabian oryx, Przewalski's horse. And, best of all, the scientist who developed the science behind all this genetic management is based here (Dr. Jon Ballou).
You can read the full Q&A — which covers questions like whether native animal populations ever attempt to sneak into the zoo and when we can expect the National Zoo's baby panda to be weaned — right here.