Kurt isn’t just another horse.
He’s the world’s first successfully cloned Przewalski’s horse and is “thriving” at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park where he’s learning to be a real, wild Przewalski’s horse.
That’s with a little help from Holly, a horse born in the usual sense, whom he was paired with in 2021.
“Przewalski’s horses normally live in groups where a youngster secures their place in the herd from their mother,” Kristi Burtis, director of wildlife care, San Diego Zoo Safari Park, said in a statement. “Because Kurt was not born into a herd, he didn’t know the behavioral language that is unique to Przewalski’s horses. Our first step to socialize him was introducing him to Holly.”
Happy hooves 🐴 Kurt—the world’s first successfully cloned Przewalski’s horse—is thriving at the Safari Park thanks to mentorship from his partner Holly. The two were successfully introduced in 2021 & are critical to restoring genetic diversity in remaining P-horse populations. pic.twitter.com/ByMxvsJpFC— San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance (@sandiegozoo) September 27, 2022
Officials hope the pairing will eventually bring some lost genetic diversity to the endangered species, which was once extinct in the wild.
The Przewalski’s horse has survived for the past 40 years thanks to conservation efforts by zoos around the world. All of the surviving horses are related to 12 Przewalski’s horses born in the wild.
Kurt is a clone of a Przewalski’s stallion whose DNA was cryopreserved 42 years ago in San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance’s Wildlife Biodiversity Bank.
His birthplace was the ViaGen Pets & Equine cloning facility in Texas in August, 2020 to a surrogate mother, a domestic Quarter Horse.
He moved to the San Diego Zoo in March, 2021 where zookeepers set out to show him how to be a Przewalski’s horse.
And that’s where Holly, who is just a few months older than Kurt, came in.
Holly was raised in a Przewalski’s horse herd and had the “full repertoire of wild horse language to share,” according to the zoo.
“After some behavioral sparring, the two have settled into an affectionate pairing,” the facility explained. “They enjoy being together, running around and playing. Kurt and Holly have been in a secluded, private habitat since their arrival at the Safari Park.”
They’ve recently been moved to another area where visitors can see them, as the zoo prepares the pair to join the larger herd of Przewalski’s horses. Eventually, zookeepers hope Kurt will become the breeder stallion when he reaches maturity by age 3 or 4.
“Kurt is significant to his species because he offers the hope of bringing back lost genetic diversity to the population,” Nadine Lamberski, chief conservation and wildlife health officer, San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, said in a statement. “It is imperative to do everything we can to save this genetic diversity before it disappears.”
The past several decades have seen reintroductions of the species in China and Mongolia. But conservationists are using reproductive technologies to maintain genetic diversity and bolster attempts to save an endangered species.
“Kurt’s birth was a major milestone for Przewalski’s horse conservation,” said Oliver Ryder, Kleberg-endowed director of conservation genetics, San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. “His success will serve as a model for saving endangered wildlife through the use of cloning, using DNA stored in the Wildlife Biodiversity Bank at San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance.”
Kurt was born in collaboration with the zoo, ViaGen and a nonprofit, Revive & Restore.
He may be the first, but hopefully not the last.
“Our goal to clone a Przewalski’s horse was to see future generations of this species benefit,” Ryan Phelan, co-founder and executive director, Revive & Restore, added. “This relationship between Kurt and Holly is an important part of Kurt’s maturation, and bodes well for the genetic rescue of other endangered species around the world.”