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Running with the wild horses of the Namib

Running with the wild horses of the Namib

There’s little that compares to the sight of a wild horse thundering to the waterhole on the Garub plains of Namibia, mane flying, dust exploding around its hooves. For more than a century, these horses known as the Namibs have lived in the Namib-Naukluft Park between Aus and Lüderitz, but survival in the Namib Desert is no easy feat.

They have adapted their behaviour and endured (with a little help from their friends) the continual cycle of droughts that keeps their numbers down and tempers their gene pool – the cycle of abundance and drought is a natural part of life in the desert.

Auspicious visit

wild horses
But the last few years have brought another challenge that has left them hovering on the brink of extinction. At Garub, I meet up with wild-horse expert Telané Greyling, doctor of zoology, to hear how they are faring. I arrive mid-year when the five-year drought has finally broken and 40 millimetres of rain has collected in rock pools and sunk into the bleached sand. I cannot wish for a more auspicious time for my visit.

As we drive along the back roads, Telané stops whenever she sees horses, identifying them through binocs. We climb out of the vehicle, surveying the surroundings from a clump of granite.

“That’s Richard,” she says when she spots the stallion grazing in the distance. I realise that, after almost three decades of studying the horses, Telané can identify every horse, and has named all of them. “The Namibs comprise family groups that range from around two to ten individuals and bachelor stallions.”

For her master’s degree in 1994, she studied the behavioural ecology of these wild horses, researching the size of the family groups, group dynamics, what the horses eat and how often they drink, which yields fascinating information as to how a population of wild horses lives when not in a domestic setting.

As I have learnt over the years of becoming acquainted with these wild horses, all horses on the planet have been domesticated over time except for Przewalski’s horse, or the Mongolian wild horse, which was considered extinct at the end of the 20th century until a small herd, bred in captivity, was reintroduced to its natural environment.

Millennia of domestication

wild horses

Photo: Telane Greyling

The domestication of horses began on the Eurasian steppes 5 000 to 6 000 years ago, and spread around the world. For the next 4 000 years, horses were in service to humankind.

The wild-horse populations today that are found in small pockets on virtually every continent have escaped their domestic constraints, which is probably why they pull on our heartstrings and lift our spirits. Remembering their roots from the time when Equus caballus ran wild and free on Earth, the horses resumed their natural way of life, forming family groups and living off the land as if the millennia of domestication were just a dream. Telané fills me in on her later research.

“I monitored the horses over the years, doing an environmental assessment on the Namibs between 2003 and 2006, and offering possible management strategies.” In this three-year study, she ascertained that, over the century of their existence in the Namib (they are now tenth generation), the horses found their own niche in the desert ecosystem, not displacing
or negatively impacting any flora or fauna.

Along the road, she points out dainty grass stems (difficult to see at a glance) that emerged after the first shower of the year. “This has enabled the Namibia Wild Horses Foundation to stop feeding the horses,” she says. “It’s been a mammoth operation to do so over the last three years, with the public generously donating both funds and feed.”

Numbers plummeting

Namibs
These efforts enabled the population to survive until the rains arrived, as it has after other drought periods. However, an additional problem arrived in the form of a clan of spotted hyena that moved into the Garub section of the Namib-Naukluft Park in 2013 and started preying predominantly on the horses.

It didn’t take long for the wild-horse population to plummet. In the last five years numbers have dropped from 286 to 79 horses, with not one foal surviving. “In 2013 alone, they caught and killed 100, 50 of them foals,” Telané tells me. This brought various concerned parties together to meet in 2015 with the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, to look for a solution to safeguard the future of the population, which has become a popular tourist attraction, embodying the rugged, soulful desert and the open spaces of Namibia.

“With the ministry adhering to its non-interference policy in national parks, the foundation asked for permission to provide an alternate food source for the hyenas to try and draw their attention away from the horses. This was granted in the same year. They also requested permission to move the horses from the park to ensure their survival, and began investigating renting farmland in the vicinity, subject to custodianship, with the option to purchase when funds could be raised.”

While everyone waited anxiously for the ministry’s green light, the predation continued, placing the genetic integrity of the population at risk as the number of mares dropped to 33, the lowest in their recorded history.

Leaving the horses and Telané in the south, I drive northwards to Windhoek to meet up with Manni Goldbeck, chairman of the Namibia Wild Horses Foundation, who has spent many years researching the history of the horses. Having grown up on a farm in Namibia, he has horses in his blood. He shares his favourite Sir Winston Churchill quote, which aptly describes the virtue of horses, ‘There’s something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man’.

“I have always been fascinated by the Namibs,” he says, “and how they have been able to survive in such a harsh environment for more than 100 years.” Manni became aware of them 30 years ago, when he entered the tourism industry, and started to put itineraries together for tourists. But little was known about their behaviour until Telané began her research. Her knowledge added to his research as a hobby historian.

Origin of the Namibs

Nambis

Credit: Telane Greyling

But the theories circulating about the horses’ origins didn’t gel for him. “It wasn’t enough that people said that they originate from a stud farm in the Duwisib area, or from German army horses stranded after a shipwreck on the coast here. Anyone who knows the desert and distances knows that’s impossible.” He wanted to dig deeper and it took almost 20 years to get to the crux of what actually happened.

“A friend and fellow hobby-historian, Walter Rusch discovered a photo album in London while researching the 1908 diamond rush in Namibia.” When Manni looked at the photos of Emil Kreplin, the mayor of Lüderitz in the early 1900s and one of the early diamond magnates, and those of his stud farm at Kubub, the mystery began to unravel.

Kreplin had started the stud farm some distance inland from the coastal town, to breed horses for racing and recreation, and mules to work in the diamond fields. The markings and shape of the horses in the photographs at Kubub bear remarkable similarities to those of the Namibs today.

Manni tells me how the tumult of World War I changed the course of history for both man and beast, when Lüderitz was occupied by the Union of South Africa troops in 1914. The residents, including Kreplin, were interned for the duration of the war, with many returning to Germany afterwards.

“With no-one to look after the stud farm, the horses were on their own, and followed the open water and grazing until they reached Garub, 30 kilometres away, where a borehole was maintained for the steam trains.” Here they would have met up with any Union horses that remained at Garub (which briefly was as a wartime Union base) after it was bombed by the German troops, when they retreated inland with the Union soldiers in hot pursuit.

“With the country in chaos, other stragglers might have joined the group of horses. Garub was in the forbidden diamond territory, the Sperrgebiet, which provided a certain amount of protection over the years. In the late 1980s, it was incorporated into the Namib-Naukluft Park.

“We cannot allow the horses to die”

Wild horses
Certainly, these intriguing horses have a rich history and are now recognised as a unique breed, authenticated by DNA analysis and blood-typing. We chat about the present-day issues that are threatening the population, and the possibility of the foundation being granted custodianship of the horses, which will enable them to move the horses to Kubub or another farm in the vicinity. Manni feels positive.

“With the support of all the horse lovers out there, we can tackle this,” he says. “Horses played such a huge role in the evolution of humankind and in Namibia – for exploration into new lands, and for transport, recreation, war, industry and agriculture. They are integral to our history and we should honour that.”

He tells me a recent Facebook survey revealed that 95 per cent of Namibians from all walks of life felt we should preserve these horses for future generations, and that says something. It’s heart-warming. We cannot allow the horses to die.”

I follow the story for the next few months as the rain turns the Namib green and covers the desert with flowers. The horses graze and fill out, rapidly picking up condition. And, then, with still no decision forthcoming from the ministry, an unexpected turn takes place. The hyenas venture onto the surrounding farmland, challenging farmers, and leaving the horses in peace and safety for the time being.

The remaining horses are fat, and the mares have conceived after the rains, but the fate of this population still hangs in the balance. Many questions remain – will these foals be able to survive predation by the hyenas and herald another era of wild horses? Or are these the last of the wild horses of the Namib Desert that we’ll have the privilege of getting to know?

On my way south, before I leave Namibia, I stop at the Garub hide that looks out on the waterhole and the plains and see the horses galloping to the water, the sun catching their coats. I see a foal has been born while I’ve been away, and I watch the newborn with wonder, and full of hope.

Namibia Wild Horses Foundation
www.wild-horses-namibia.com
www.facebook.com/NamibiaWildHorses

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