Are Horses more important than Wildlife in our National Parks?

PUBLISHED 6 MAR 2019   

We previously wrote an article about the Hyenas and the Horses of Namibia, fighting for survival. You can read more about that here: http://bit.ly/NamibiaWildHorses - Today, we look deeper at the current situation of the Wild Horses in the Namib desert.

Namibia's wild horses are not only a cultural and historical icon, but are also a huge tourist attraction in their own right. Visitors from all over the world come to see these wild equines in their harsh desert environment, where they have survived against all odds for a century or more.

These odds include limited food availability due to severe and prolonged droughts, and predation by wild animals. However, both these limitations are now starting to take their toll on the wild horse population, which is likely to go extinct without human intervention. Food and water has been provided in the past to help sustain the horses during the drought, but currently predation by a pack of hyena poses a bigger threat to the long-term survival of the wild horse population. Culling the hyenas is one contentious proposal that has been touted, but this raises an ethical question: Is it right to save the wild horses, which are essentially a feral domesticated species, at the expense of other wildlife?

The wild horse population has been decimated from 286 individuals in 2013 to just 77 horses; largely due to predation by hyenas. In 2013 alone, the hyenas killed 100 horses, half of which were foals. The situation has now become critical. Towards the end of 2018 the Namibia Wild Horses Foundation (NWHF) approached MET for assistance to protect five new born foals from the marauding hyenas. Two attempts to capture the hyenas were unsuccessful and then the operation was put on hold over the holiday period due to staff being away on leave.

These delays have proved fatal for the new born foals, which have all since been killed — at least 20 foals have been lost in the past year. According to Christine Wulff-Sweigers from the NWHF, not a single foal born in the last five years has survived.

"There might be about one or two pregnant mares still, but that is about it," says Wulff-Sweigers, but the odds of these or the two remaining foals that were recently born surviving are not very good at all. One of the newborn foals was recently attacked and has debilitating injuries. "It is still uncertain if it will survive," Wulff-Swiegers says. "The foal has a serious gash to its belly, but it looks like the wounds are improving."

As part of the Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism's (MET) 'Wild Horses Action Plan' three hyenas have already been culled, with three still remaining. MET officials plan to capture the remaining hyenas and relocate them to another area within the Namib-Naukluft National Park, further away from the wild horses.

The NWHF has been appealing to MET for years to either manage the hyenas or give the foundation custodianship of the wild horses, so that they can take more effective measures to protect them. The Ministry has refused granting the NWHF custodianship of the horses, stating that the must remain in MET's care as they are a national heritage, and as such, it is the ministry's responsibility to take care of them. But judging by the dwindling population and zero survival rate of foals, it is clear MET have not honoured their responsibility.

If there is any hope of saving this population, action is needed now. Stalling any longer will result in this iconic part of Namibia's national heritage being lost forever.

"If the predation continues, Namibia's wild horse population doesn't stand a chance," says Wulff-Swiegers. "The youngest mare is already eight years old and in eight more years, she will be past her breeding age."

In order for this population to survive, foals need to survive so that a new breeding cohort can produce the next generation of wild horses. Without future breeding stock, these uniquely adapted horses will simply vanish from the desert plains — a national heritage from a bygone era lost forever.

Are horses more important than wildlife in our national parks? Depends who you ask. Horse lovers are in favour of protecting the horses at all costs, while conservationists argue that this should not be at the expense of indigenous predators. Both raise very valid points in their arguments. As a unique part of Namibia's national heritage and a tourism drawcard, the wild horses are certainly worthy of protection, but then again so does our wildlife. And so the wild horse management debate continues…

It is clear that management in some form or another is required if the horses are to survive, but this does not necessarily mean that wild predators need to be culled. Surely there are other options. Perhaps a better option would be to relocate the horses to a neighbouring farm or other protected area where predators can be kept out with fencing. Sure, they will not then be truly 'wild horses' in the sense that they are roaming free around the desert, but at least they can be provided with food and water when times are tough, and can be offered better protection against indigenous predators.