By Sven-Eric Kanzler
The so-called wild horses of the Namib that live in the area around Garub, 20 km west of Aus, have a tough life. Rainfall is rare and unreliable, often just enough to sustain succulents, prickly shrubs and grasses. Still, the horses usually find sufficient grazing. But years of drought occur regularly in the fringe area of the Namib, such as in 1991/92, and in 1998/99, when the horses were starving and the weaker animals perished. The public outcry, both in Namibia and from beyond the borders, resulted in costly efforts to catch or feed the horses. In both cases success was only moderate.
At a meeting in November 2005, the horses and possible measures for their care were discussed. At the same time an old debate was rekindled: should the horses be tolerated there? After all, a large part of their habitat is situated in the state-owned Namib-Naukluft Park, which is supposed to protect indigenous flora and fauna, not these ‘aliens’ descended from domestic horses which have only been in the area for 90 years and would not have survived without the watering trough set up at Garub by man.
Besides, some conservationists feared that the wild horses would drive out indigenous animals and destroy indigenous plants, and therefore wanted to remove them from the park. Due to massive pressure from the public, the media and horse lovers in the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET), such plans were dropped. Since then the horses have become a tourist attraction and as such generate earnings and jobs for local people.
A disruptive element?
The justifiable concerns had still not been eliminated and the problems were far from solved. The surroundings of Aus are regarded as a biological hotspot with more than 500 plant species, some of them endemic. What if the horses were a disruptive element in their environment and contributed to unique plants becoming extinct? What does the presence of the wild horses mean for the management plan of a national park? Can the horses be treated like game? Can they simply be abandoned in years of drought? Or should there be an intervention, and if so, what form and extent should it take?
Supported by the MET and the lodge and tourism business at Klein-Aus Vista and the Nature Investments company (Gondwana Desert Collection), biologist Telané Greyling has dealt with these and other questions in her thesis. She presented the results of her research at a meeting held at Cañon Village in November 2005 to discuss future steps concerning the wild horses. Among the participants were representatives of the MET and veterinary services, and tourism and scientists from Namibia, South Africa and Britain.
On the basis of Greyling’s extensive research, the experts first debated the key issue of whether the horses should be seen as aliens in the Namib Desert’s fragile ecosystem. Greyling has not been able to substantiate the claim that the horses displace the indigenous flora or fauna. She stated that by and large the same species and same numbers of individuals found in nearby areas of comparison occur also in the area the horses frequent.
Sound management principles
In a second step the meeting looked at recommendations, especially tailored to the horses, for a possible management plan to be drawn up by the MET. Of course, the horses cannot be regarded as ordinary game like gemsbok or springbok. On the one hand they are no longer domestic animals but part of the ‘wide’ open and as such are subject to nature’s rules. Therefore the death of weak animals in times of drought is the natural cycle taking its course. On the other hand, man cannot simply deny all responsibility. Fences block access to natural watering places and better grazing on farms bordering the area to the east – a death trap also for gemsbok. And in times of drought, the number of animals might drop so severely that the gene pool is affected negatively and their survival endangered by inbreeding. Saying ‘yes’ to the horses also means saying ‘yes’ to preservation.
Before considering possible steps, the desired goals have to be clear. The meeting agreed on the following: to ensure a stable population of wild horses, to keep the costs for their care as low as possible, to utilise the attraction more efficiently for tourism, to gather more information on the animals and to improve public knowledge about them.
A prerequisite for controlling the horse population is to monitor rainfall, grazing and the numbers and the condition of the animals on a regular basis. It was agreed that the reference value for a stable population is 130, with short-term fluctuations between 80 and 180. Such fluctuations also occurred in the past. During the seventies and eighties the number of horses was estimated at 250, but when fences were put up in the late eighties, the number dropped considerably. One hundred and four horses were caught in June 1992; there were 110 horses in 1993; in 1997 the number had risen to 149; in 1999 it dropped to just 89; and at present it is back to about 150 animals.
The team of experts also recommends setting up a watering place in a neighbouring grazing area to shorten the horses’ trip to the water in times of drought, even though they have adapted to arid conditions and can go without water longer than domestic horses and without stress. During summer (November to March) they come to drink at 30-hour intervals, in winter (May to September) at 72-hour intervals. But the further they are from where they’re grazing to the water, the more energy they expend to reach it. In situations where the condition of the horses deteriorates, making lucerne available as additional fodder is envisaged. It was emphasised that it is important to spread fodder over a wide area to prevent stressful competition and fighting.
Proposals were also put forward with regard to catching horses as a way of keeping the population stable. Young animals (two to four years) and equal numbers of mares and stallions should be chosen from the herd to avoid long-term disruptions in their social structure. Such disruptions were caused when more than 100 horses, regardless of age or gender, were caught in 1992.
The people who live in the area and benefit indirectly from the horses as a tourist attraction also rated highly in the discussions. Visitors can watch the horses from the shelter at the drinking trough near Garub, and from the middle of 2006, background information will be available at the Aus Information Centre, just 20 kilometres away. A booklet about the horses is in the pipeline and will be sold there. The Information Centre serves as a source of income for the community of Aus and could at some stage in the future be combined with a horse-research centre. With both centres the envisaged fourth goal of improving public information about the horses could be realised, bringing the wild horses of the Namib back from the edge.
This article appeared in the 2006/7 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.