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 and beginning 2012.
The public outcry in Namibia and far beyond the borders resulted in two costly efforts to catch and feed the horses in the 1990's. In both cases success was only moderate. Many horses were already weakened to a point where feeding did not help any more, 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 Klein Aus Vista Lodge and the Gondwana Collection, Namibia with permission from the Ministry of Environment and Tourism.
The results of Dr Greyling’s extensive research revealed no indication that the horses have displaced or impacted the indigenous flora or fauna in a negative way.
Continued below...The Hyena Saga
The Hyena Saga
During the intensive agricultural era of the 70’s, farmers shot and were even rewarded for shooting hyena, caracal, jackal and other predators which were considered ‘vermin’. After the collapse of the karakul market in the 1980’s, land-use changed to tourism opening marginal areas for predators such as hyena to multiply.
The 2000 - 2010 wet cycle had a huge influence on the game numbers resulting in a reciprocal increase in predator numbers. The size of the hyena clans increased to the extent that some had to disperse to new areas such as Garub where game, water and breeding shelters were available.
In 2012 the Namibia Wild Horses Foundation (NWHF) was founded as the situation for the horses became dire. That year 49 foals were born providing easy prey for the hyena. Within a year they had learned how to set up an ambush and by the end of 2013 they were able to bring down adult horses.
By October 2015 grazing became critical and of low nutritional value resulting in a drop in condition of horses. Permission was given by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) to feed the horses. This was accomplished by overwhelming support and public donations.
Predation by hyena however increased during 2016 to the extent they were catching 3 - 6 horses a month. The Foundation again approached MET regarding the un-sustainability of the situation - by April permission was given to start feeding the hyena as a short-term solution.
Twelve horses still died of malnutrition (only 10% of the population as opposed to 60% dying in the 1998 drought) as they refused to accept the ‘imported’ grass.
Relocation and custodianship of the horses was contested by local communities and tourism businesses as well as MET.
In Feb 2018 significant rain on the eastern slopes of the horses habitat occurred and within a month all horses were in good or excellent condition and supplementary feeding was stopped.
Since the adult horses (no foals had survived since 2012) were in such good condition several hyena moved onto farms in search of easier prey - 5 clan members were annihilated by farmers. All the 2018 foals were killed by the remaining hyena.
Public outcry resulted in a crisis-management plan for the hyena which resulted in most of the Garub clan being eliminated. One foal (Zohra) from the February 2019 foaling season has survived. The next foals are expected from September 2019 onward.