Putting past concerns to rest

Despite the fascination and enthusiasm, the existence of the Wild Horses has resulted in questions and debates over the years. The area around Garub is situated on the eastern fringe of the Namib Desert. Rainfall is rare and unpredictable – often just enough for succulents, prickly shrubs and annual grasses. Still, the horses usually find sufficient grazing. But years of drought occur regularly on the fringes of the Namib as in the drought years of the early and late 1990s. The public outcry in Namibia and far beyond the borders resulted in costly efforts to catch and feed the horses. In both cases success was only moderate – mainly because action was taken too late. Many horses were already weakened to a point where feeding did not help anymore, or they succumbed to the stress of being domesticated.

Other concerns touched on the principles of nature conservation. The horses live mostly in the state-owned Namib Naukluft Park, whose task is to protect the indigenous flora and fauna. The area around Aus is seen as a biological hotspot with more than 500 plant species, some of them endemic. Questions were raised about the possibility of the horses being a disruptive element in their environment and contributing to unique plants becoming extinct. Others have asked what the presence of the Wild Horses means for the management plan of the national park, if they can be treated like game to be simply abandoned in years of drought, or if there should there be some intervention. And, if so, what form it should it take.

Biologist, Telané Greyling, has dealt with these and other issues in her Doctoral thesis on the Wild Horses and has spent two decades studying the horses and their environment. Her work has been supported by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, Klein Aus Vista Lodge and the Gondwana Collection, Namibia. The results of Dr Greyling’s extensive research revealed no indication that the horses have displaced or impacted the indigenous flora or fauna in any way. She concluded that the same species and the same numbers found in nearby areas of comparison also occur in the area where the horses live. This answered the many questions and finally put minds at rest.

Measures of moderation

It is understood that although the wild horses can’t be regarded as game like gemsbok and springbok, they are no longer domesticated animals and as such form part of ‘the wilds’, subject to nature. Therefore the death of weak animals in times of drought is the natural cycle taking its course. On the other hand, man cannot simply shirk all responsibility. Fences block access to natural watering holes and more optimum grazing on farms bordering the area to the east (an acknowledged death-trap for gemsbok as well). It is also of concern that in times of drought the number of horses might drop so severely to negatively affect their gene pool and endanger their survival by inbreeding. Saying ‘yes’ to the horses is therefore also a ‘yes’ to preservation.

In November 2005, a meeting of experts from diverse fields including representatives from MET, the veterinary sciences, the tourism industry and scientists from Namibia and abroad agreed on possible goals for the preservation of the wild horses: to ensure a stable population of Wild Horses, to keep the costs for their care as low as possible, to utilise them more efficiently as a tourist attraction, to gather more information and to improve public knowledge about them.

A prerequisite for controlling the horse population is to monitor rainfall, grazing, numbers and the condition of the animals on a regular basis.The mean population size historically seemed to have been around 130, with short-term fluctuations between 80 and 250. During the seventies and eighties the number of horses was estimated at 250, but it dropped considerably when fences were put up at the area’s eastern boundary in the late eighties. One-hundred-and-four horses were caught in June 1992. The population comprised 110 horses in 1993, and increased to 149 in 1997. In 1999 the number dropped to just 89, but increased again during the following 12 years of good rains. Just as a capture operation seemed necessary in 2013, drought and predation by spotted hyenas once again reduced the population to below 200.

The team of experts also recommended that intervention should only occur in the event of a crisis situation and that appropriate steps should always be kept at a minimum. In times of drought, a watering facility could initially be set up in a neighbouring grazing area to shorten the horses’ trip to the water. (Even though the wild horses have adapted to the arid conditions and can go without water far longer than domestic horses and without suffering the resultant stress, they expend considerable energy travelling the longer distances between grazing and water.) Should the condition of the horses deteriorate, additional fodder could also be provided. In this case it would be important to spread fodder over a wide area in order to limit competition which causes stress or even fighting.

Proposals were also put forward for catching horses as an advanced measure of keeping the population size below grazing capacity. Capture would only be considered, however, when the population exceeds 200 individuals. Young animals (2 to 4 years) and equal numbers of mares and stallions should be chosen in such cases from the herd to avoid long-term disruptions to their social structure.