Namibia’s wild horses – regarded with compassion and even envy

Namibia’s Conservation paradigm: Use to Conserve versus Protect to Conserve
July 3, 2012
Elephant progress
July 5, 2012
Namibia’s Conservation paradigm: Use to Conserve versus Protect to Conserve
July 3, 2012
Elephant progress
July 5, 2012

“There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a person.”

Winston Churchill

The fringe of the Namib Desert in south-western Namibia is the habitat of 135 wild horses. For many decades their existence has been steeped in myth, but this has not necessarily been to their advantage. Sven-Eric Kanzler reports on a research project conducted by Mannfred Goldbeck and Telané Greyling aimed at gaining a realistic picture of the horses and recommending suitable steps to preserve their habitat and protect them.

Relentlessly the sun is scorching the desolate land. Rocks, rubble, sand. Here and there a shrivelled shrub or a tuft of yellow grass. Heat fills the wide valleys with liquid air. Shadows swimming on the shimmering plain gradually take shape as a stallion with a mare and foal. Step by step they struggle along. It is a long way from their grazing area to the horse trough. The distance increases with every day that passes without rain and grass becomes ever sparser. The last rains fell many moons ago: the horses’ ribs are jutting out painfully.

Life is tough for the wild horses on the fringe of the Namib Desert in south-western Namibia. The annual average rainfall is barely 100 mm – just enough for succulents, thorny shrubs and grasses. Usually the horses find enough grazing. But there are periodic droughts. Then grazing becomes so scarce that the weaker animals die. Like in 1991/92 and 1998/99. In both cases the suffering of the horses makes headlines and inspires fundraising campaigns. Grannies raid their moneyboxes and girls their piggybanks to pay for fodder, or alternatively, to finance catching the horses and taking them to farms. The overwhelming readiness to rush to the rescue is a response that some humanitarian aid organisations can only dream of.

Why do the wild horses and their periodic plight touch people so deeply? What is it that we find so fascinating about them?

Origins steeped in mystery

The mystery surrounding the origin of the horses is certainly one reason. At one time there were zebra and quagga in Southern Africa, but no horses. The first horses arrived with the Europeans, from the 17th century onwards: with the Dutch and British who colonised South Africa from the Cape, and also with the Germans, who settled in today’s Namibia towards the end of the 19th century. The wild horses of the Namib are thus the descendents of domesticated animals. Like the mustangs of North America, they adopted a feral existence. For decades they have been roaming the vicinity of the horse trough at Garub, about 20 km west of Aus. Since there is no other surface water in the area, they have to come to the trough regularly. It is all that remains of a pump station for steam locomotives that used to run on the railway line close by. The trough was added and is maintained especially for the horses.

But how did domesticated hor-ses become lost in this area? And how did they become feral? Until now speculation has abounded, but there have been no truly satisfying answers. Perhaps the unresolved, the mysterious, is more alluring than the simple truth. The chances are whoever unveils it will be looked on with disfavour. Nevertheless, the speculations are dealt with below.

According to one much-quoted explanation, a ship with a cargo of horses and other domestic animals was wrecked on the Skeleton Coast; apparently the animals were seen wandering around on the beach afterwards. However, this incident occurred in the late 19th century, about 25 km south of the Orange River mouth and roughly 200 km from Garub. The assumption that the horses crossed the river and the desert belt is not entirely convincing.

Another theory involves the eccentric Baron Hansheinrich von Wolf. At the beginning of the 20th century, Von Wolf bred horses for the German colonial forces on his farm Duwisib, about 250 km north-east of Garub. It is said that after he was killed in action in Europe during the First World War, numerous horses at Duwisib were released or ran away.

However, the farm was by no means left abandoned; a farm manager was put in charge. And according to the farm’s bookkeeping, no horses were lost until the late thirties, whereas reports about wild horses near Garub appear already in the twenties.

Furthermore, neither of these explanations takes into account that horses do not migrate but usually stay in the area they know. It can thus be concluded that the wild horses are descendents of horses lost in the vicinity of Garub and Aus. But who would have lost horses? Groups of Nama people have crossed this territory, as well as European traders, missionaries, transport drivers, prospectors, German farmers and Schutztruppe. However, a few run-away horses can hardly have formed the basis of the herd existing today. The number of animals and diversity of their characteristics suggest that the initial group was fairly large.

According to yet another theory, horses were left behind by retreating German colonial forces during the First World War as South African troops advanced. But German military reports from those days say that the retreat proceeded largely in an orderly fashion.

These reports do, however, contain a reference to the true origin of the wild horses: 10 000 South African soldiers with 6 000 horses had pitched camp at Garub in March 1915. A report compiled subsequently states:

On the morning of March 27 the indefatigable pilot officer Fiedler flew to Garub and caused great bewilderment by successfully dropping bombs onto the enemy camp and among about 1 700 grazing cavalry horses. (Hans von Oelhafen: Der Feldzug in Südwest 1914/15, Berlin 1923, page 117).

The South African forces were about to start their offensive and had orders to follow hot on the heels of the retreating German soldiers. Most likely there was no time to round up all the dispersed animals. Thus it seems that the core of the wild herd must have consisted of horses belonging to the South African army. It is of course possible that after 1915 other horses which had run away from traders, prospectors and farmers joined the herd.

It is probably due to the diamond finds at the coast that the horses were not caught again. In order to stop smuggling, the German colonial administration established re-       stricted areas from 1908 on-wards. These areas, reaching about 100 km inland, were strictly controlled. The surroundings of Garub were part of Sperrgebiet II. No one was allowed access, and no exceptions were made for hunters or horse catchers. Horse lovers saw to it that the trough at Garub was maintained.

In 1986 Sperrgebiet II was incorporated into the Namib-Naukluft Park and made ac-cessible to the public. This very nearly put an end to the wild horses’ existence: purists within the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) felt that the horses did not belong there and wanted them removed from the area which had become their natural habitat. They dropped their plans only under massive pressure from the public, the media and more open-minded personnel in the Ministry.

A symbol of unlimited freedom

No doubt the mysterious origin of the wild horses is part of their allure, but it is not the real issue. Rather, we are fascinated because the horses have gained the freedom to live according to their own rules. They have broken out of their man-given role of stud, show jumper and hobby companion. They have rediscovered their natural behaviour and established their own social rules. Don’t we all dream of liberating ourselves from the constraints of civilisation?

We are also fascinated by the habitat that the horses have chosen: vast desert plains instead of a paddock or stable. Which city dweller doesn’t yearn for a place where he can be alone and enjoy his own breathing space? And we are fascinated because the wild horses have conquered an alien world. Like Tom Hanks as a modern Robinson Crusoe in the movie Castaway. Removed from the protected space of civilisation, the horses have learnt to defy the harsh conditions of their new surroundings and to survive. With the difference, however, that they clearly enjoy their ‘island’.

Freedom, space, nature – these are the qualities man has lost as a result of civilisation and for which he yearns from deep within. It is no coincidence that these elements are often found in advertisements for cars or cigarettes. Freedom, space and nature are also the reason why Germans have been emigrating to Namibia since the age of industrialisation and why holidaymakers from Europe come to visit the country year after year. The wild horses have something that not only fascinates us, but which we also envy.

Solicitude on the wrong track

However, the envy turns into pity as soon as freedom and nature take their toll – that is, when the horses starve or even perish during a drought. Man’s compulsion to intervene may be an echo of his guilty conscience towards the creature which, in his zealous attempts to take control of Earth, he crammed into reserves and zoos. With regard to the wild horses there is another factor: they are often seen as domestic animals for which man feels an added obligation. But these horses are no longer domesticated. They are part of nature, uncontrolled by man, and as such are subject to the rules of nature. The death of weak animals in times of drought is the natural cycle taking its course.

It can be argued with good reason that the horse trough already constitutes an intervention by man. And that the survival of all the horses may be doubtful during extended periods of drought, even more so, because in the west their ‘island’ is bordered by the desert and in the east by the fences of adjoining farms. Should it not therefore, after all, be an obligation to feed the horses during severe droughts or catch some of the herd to be cared for on farms, as in 1991/92? What are the consequences of such measures for the horses, their social fabric, their habitat? Observation and management are a necessity in all nature conservation areas. However, in order to fulfil this task in a responsible way, man cannot submit to emotions, but has to be guided by the sober facts pertaining to the horses and their habitat.

Research compiles facts

The existence and behaviour of the horses have been studied and scientifically documented since December 1993. As a result considerable fluctuations in the number of animals have been noted. While there were an estimated 250 horses during the seventies and eighties, their numbers declined during the drought of 1991/92. In June 1992 altogether 104 horses were caught and sold to various interested parties; the rest were fed lucerne for months, until it rained again. Since then their number has varied from 110 in 1993 to 149 in 1997. During a second drought in 1998/99 it dropped to 89, but has since risen to 135.

The herd consists of about 20 small groups, each of which is led by an alpha-animal (often a mare) and protected by a stallion. Juvenile stallions form bachelor groups, and subsequently conquer mares and entire groups.

The wild horses of the Namib have not adapted genetically to their habitat. Reports suggesting extraordinary resilience have to be relegated to the realm of myth: many of the animals that were caught and taken to farms, succumbed to horse sickness and other ailments. The horses’ adaptation is demonstrated more effectively by their behaviour: their patterns of feeding and drinking, resting and playing match the availability of grazing and prevailing temperatures. In times of drought, when grazing becomes less, they spend more time on feeding and less energy on play. They also drink at longer intervals.

There is a link between temperature and drinking. During the hot summer months (No-vember to March) they come to the trough at average intervals of 72 hours, whereas during the cooler winter months (May to September) they come only at 30-hour intervals. After rains, that is, when grazing is good, they drink every day, no matter what the temperature is. They use less time for feeding and spend several hours resting and playing close to the trough.

The wild horses eat not only grass but also their own dry dung. This, however, does not mean that they are starved, as was initially assumed. It is natural behaviour that can be seen in most horses – wild or domesticated – which have access to dry dung. Nutrients are the reason: compared to the dry grass (Stipagrostis obtusa) in the Namib, the wild horses’ dung contains almost three times as much fat (1.99 g compared to 0.7 g per 100 g) and almost twice as much protein (6.1 g compared to 3.1 g per 100 g).

Current research is not aimed merely at collecting interesting facts about the horses. Much more is involved. The objections of the purists are taken seriously: have the horses blended with their habitat or do they disturb the natural balance? Have they driven away local species of animals and plants? Are long-term disturbances to be expected?

Intensive research is currently being undertaken, supported by the MET. The current study compares the occurrence of insects, reptiles and small mammals in the area roamed by the horses, with a scientific control area to establish the horses’ effect on their surroundings. Added to this are data about larger mammals and the numbers of specific species during longer periods of time. The results will also be used to develop more suitable measures for maintaining the wild horses and their habitat.

Most importantly, however, the intention is to replace the myths surrounding the horses with a more realistic picture. And to motivate us to wonder whether the skinny horse that we pity isn’t happier than the handsome full-bodied steed in its dark stable. And whether it isn’t happier than we are in our two-bedroom apartment on the fifth floor of a large building in a city.

This article appeared in the 2004/5 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.

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