The Wild Horses of the Southern Namib – Survival in the desert

The Wild Horses of the Namib a ract thousands of tourists each year. Their mysterious origins and that the horses have gained the freedom to live according to their own natural ways touch us. We are also fascinated by the habitat which the horses have chosen. Between 100 and 250 horses share an area of 350-400 km2 – in mathematical terms this translates into 2.3 km2 per horse and the vastness of the desert instead of a paddock or stable. And, we are fascinated because the Wild Horses have conquered an alien world. Life in the desert is harsh.

Southern Africa has no native horse populations, so the origins of the Namib Desert Horse trace to imported herds of horses. There are several theories on the ancestors of the Namib Desert Horse, and the true story may never be known. Reports from the time make reference to 10,000 soldiers with 6,000 horses who pitched camp on the dusty expanse at the edge of the Namib Desert. They relied on the water from the borehole that was used to replenish locomotives at the nearby railway line and supplement the water for the town of Lüderitz. e German forces had set up a stronghold in the hills at Aus, 25 km to the east. e last attack was on the 27 March 1915 to mask the Germans’ retreat, scattering the Union horses. It is thought that the Union forces might not have had sufficient time to catch all the dispersed animals before advancing on the retreating Germans. Another more probable theory appears to be the missing puzzle piece as to the origin of the horses that formed the core of the wild horse population. Emil Kreplin, who was the Mayor of Lüderitz from 1909 to 1914, had a stud farm at Kubub, south of Aus. Here, Kreplin bred workhorses for the mines and racehorses for the town of Lüderitz that had boomed in the diamond rush sparked in 1908. In photographic evidence of the Kubub stud horses, unearthed by hobby-historian Walter Rusch, there are remarkable similarities in conformation and characteristic markings between the Kubub horses and the present-day wild horses showing traces of Hackney, Trakehner and Shagya Arab breeds.

Kreplin was interned in the Union of South Africa during the hostilities and later lost his fortune in the depression years in Europe. It is assumed that during or after the war the horses, ownerless and not contained by fences, would have begun to scatter, leaving the overgrazed Kubub area in search of better grazing and following the rainfall. They would have eventually made their way to the permanent water source at Garub, becoming wilder over time and linking up with any remaining Union horses and any other abandoned horses in the area. e horses lived in the protected Sperrgebiet diamond area, which pro- vided safety from hunters and horse capturers. From as early 1908 the German colonial administration had established a restricted area, which extended about 100 km inland, and was strictly controlled. Garub and surrounds were part of Sperrgebiet II. Nobody was allowed access to the area, with the only exception made periodically from the 1950’s until 1983 in times of serious drought to provide emergency grazing for farmers.

In 1986, that section of Sperrgebiet II was incorporated into the Namib Nauklu Park. For 100 years the horses were able to develop in almost complete isolation, generation by generation, through seasons of drought and abundance, becoming a pure breed through decades of natural selection. They are now regarded as a breed in their own right, the ‘Namibs’. But, these horses are no longer domestic. They are part of nature, uncontrolled by man, and as such, subject to the laws of nature. e death of weak animals at times of drought is the natural cycle taking its course.
Other concerns touched on the principles of nature conservation. e hor
ses live mostly in the state-owned Namib Nauklu Park, whose task is to protect the indigenous flora and fauna. e 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.
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. 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. is answered the many questions and finally put minds at rest.

Therefore the death of weak animals in times of drought is the natural cycle taking its course. On the other hand, man cannot simply shrug o all responsibility. Fences block access to natural watering holes and better grazing on farms bordering the area to the east. 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.

The work of the Namibia Wild Horses Foundation
e Namibia Wild Horses Foundation is a non-pro t organization, registered in 2012, with several directors from the tourism, veterinary, environmental management and research sectors on the team. e main objective is to operate as an interest group for the conservation and protection of the Wild Horses of Namibia. e foundation is currently providing grass to the wild horses two times per week. e feeding started end of October 2015, when it became apparent that no signifiacant rainfall could be expected. With the exception of scarce rainfall along the eastern border fence, no rain has been received since 2013 and the roughage resources in the Garub area are minimal. e foundation plans to carry on providing fodder to the horses until rains will fall and the grass has recovered.
While the horses are not necessarily picking up condition with the supplementary feed, they are being kept alive until green grass will restore their condition to that of the good rainy years. ere have always been good rainy and bad years in the Garub area with, in bad periods, horses dying of malnutrition. ese days, the foundation is in the fortunate position of being able to avoid mortalities due to malnutrition. These days, the foundation is in the fortunate position of being able to avoid mortalities due to malnutrition. Without the financial help of the public and organizations and business in Namibia and internationally, this would have not been possible. For more information:
www wild-horses-namibia.com

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