Hyenas & Horses Don't Mix

PUBLISHED 19 DEC 2018   

The severe drought has ravaged grazing, limiting the availability of food needed to sustain the population. Added to this, a pack of spotted hyenas has been systematically preying on newborn foals since 2013. As a result, the once flourishing herd that numbered around 300 individuals has shrunk to just 80 horses, whose lives remain in jeopardy.

According to Dr Telané Greyling, a zoologist working closely with the Namibia Wild Horses Foundation who has been studying the wild horses for more than two decades, not even one foal born since 2012 has survived. Consequently, the youngest horse in the population is already six years old. "In 2013 alone, the hyenas killed about a hundred horses, fifty of them foals," she says.

After an extended drought, the much needed rain received earlier this year provided some respite in the form of renewed growth of natural vegetation, relieving the Namibia Wild Horses Foundation and their donors from having to provide feed to help the horses survive in the barren landscape. The horses condition improved and some mares conceived and gave birth to foals. The predatory hyenas even moved further afield, leaving the horses to feed and rear their offspring in peace.

Just when things were beginning to look rosy for the Namib wild herd, the hyenas returned and killed three of the four foals born since September, once again putting the future of the century-old wild horse population in jeopardy.

The Namibia Wild Horses Foundation has pulled out all the stops to ensure that the horses survived the drought. But although the good rainfall has given the herd a boost, they believe that without intervention, any foals born to the herd have no chance of surviving. With the hyenas also targeting adult horses — primarily mares — the population is steadily declining. The low population numbers — currently only 33 mares and 47 stallions remain — means a substantially reduced gene pool, and by extension, limited genetic diversity and a greater risk of going extinct.

"The Foundation is waiting anxiously for the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) to respond to our request for custodianship of the horses, said Mannfred Goldbeck, chairman of the Namibia Wild Horses Foundation.  "We need to implement measures urgently to safeguard their future. We have been trying for several years to engage with MET, without success. The situation is now an emergency. We urge the Ministry to commit to a plan of action so that we can save the remaining population." 

According to the Wild Horses Foundation, they have been in discussions with the Ministry of Environment and Tourism since 2015. However, "the Ministry has been reluctant to manage the hyenas, as it has a non-interference policy regarding the wildlife in the national parks, yet it wants the horses to remain in the Namib Naukluft Park, where without intervention their future is certainly doomed. MET is also unwilling to grant the Wild Horses Foundation custodianship of the horses, which would enable the Foundation to find suitable land elsewhere and relocate the horses to ensure their survival. This unwillingness to manage the situation or to pass on custodianship, means certain death for the population. With no action taken, the Namib population will almost certainly disappear from the planet in the very near future."

The Wild Horses Foundation desperately wants to help the horses, however, unless MET grants them custodianship, their hands are effectively tied and they are powerless to do so.

The wild horses are are major drawcard for tourists, attracting visitors to the area to see this unique group of equines living in the harsh desert landscape. During periods of severe drought, people from all of the world have rallied together to donate funds and/or feed which was transported and delivered to the horses to ensure their survival. The Wild Horses Foundation is concerned that this has all been to no avail, if the Ministry of Environment and Tourism to not act in the best interests of the horses. The Foundation firmly believes that "the Ministry has a responsibility to the horses and an accountability to these benefactors, and to Namibia and its people."

According to the Namibia Wild Horses Foundation, "the wild horses of the Namib are among the top ten tourist attractions in Namibia. They embody the wild and free spirit of the country, have been the subject of numerous documentary films and are used to promote Namibia as a popular tourist destination. They are an important part of Namibia's history and heritage. The loss of this population will do untold damage to the brand Namibia."  The Foundation is of the view that "if MET does not act, the world will look askance at Namibians, who let their population of wild horses die on their watch when simple solutions were readily available."

In a desperate plea the Namibia Wild Horse Foundation called on the Ministry to take immediate action to save the horses from extinction before it's too late. The situation as it currently stands is critical, there is no time to deliberate, definitive action is urgently need to prevent the entire herd from being decimated and lost forever.

In a letter of response, the Ministry of Environment and Tourism has acknowledged the hyenas remain the ultimate threat to the wild horse population, leaving no chance of foals surviving. They agree that the matter requires urgent intervention, and are currently "devising a solution to reverse this disturbing trend to ensure a healthy and sustainable wild horse population."

According to MET Spokesperson, Romeo Muyunda, "relocating the horses was previously considered but seemed less viable, therefore the Ministry is now considering relocating the hyenas in an attempt to safeguard the wild horses against possible extermination or extinction." However, in order not to upset the natural ecosystem, Muyunda points out that this needs to be considered carefully, since hyenas are in their natural habitat.

"The Ministry has also in the past tried to intervene by feeding the hyenas in an attempt to distract their attention from preying on horses." Said Muyunda.

"We wish to assure the Namibian people and the world at large that the Ministry will respond swiftly to the ailing condition of the horses. We are aware of the tourism, environmental and economic value these horses have and their extinction is not an option," Muyunda assured. "The Ministry is open to collaborate with anyone including the Namibia Wild Horses Foundation on the protection and conservation of these species which are not only a tourist attraction but a national heritage," he said.

Let's hope something positive is done soon so that we can continue to marvel at these hardy desert horses for centuries to come.

Image source: Namibia Wild Horse Foundation Facebook page