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The Wild Horses of the Namib Desert

The Wild Horses of the Namib. Photo Credit: © Jacqui Ikin

Horses have always enjoyed a close bond to man – kindred spirits filled with grace and beauty. When those horses are running wild and free in one of the greatest deserts on earth, that’s a tale worth telling.

As a child, I saw a magical shot of wild white horses racing through the marshes at Camargue in France. Completely intrigued with the idea “wild horses”, it was only later in life I realised that one of the very few places on earth to see them was practically on our doorstep. 

The Namib, oldest desert in the world, has some of the highest dunes on the planet. However, it is not on the dunes that our story begins, but at the Garub watering hole just off the B4 that runs between Aus and Luderitz in Namibia. This 350 km² area, known as the “Restricted Diamond Area 2”, was integrated into the Namib Naukluft Park in 1986. It was here that I was lucky enough to get a glimpse of the fabled “Namibs” – Namibia’s Wild Horses.

Their origins are open to debate, and still largely a mystery. There are two theories that seem most likely. The first takes place during World War 1, when 10 000 soldiers with 6000 horses were stationed at Garub. A borehole was used to provide for locomotives for the railway and supplement the town of Luderitz. On 27th March 1915 bombs were dropped onto this camp and the 1700+ grazing cavalry horses. The theory is that not all the dispersed horses were rounded up. 

The second, more credible, theory involves Emil Kreplin (mayor of Luderitz 1909 – 1914) who had a stud farm at Kubub (south of Aus) breeding workhorses for the mines and racehorses for Lüderitz, which had boomed in the 1908 diamond rush. Kreplin later lost his fortune and it’s assumed that the abandoned horses slowly scattered into the surrounding environment.

Whatever their origins, these horses have been around for more than 100 years, surviving in a barren, harsh landscape – mostly without human assistance. Rainfall in this area is rare and unpredictable, and the consequent droughts take their toll on the horses. 

There are various controversies surrounding the horses. The area in which they live (the state-owned Namib Naukluft Park) is considered a biological hotspot with more than 500 plant species, some of which are endemic. Concerns have been expressed that these horses (obviously not indigenous) are impacting on this system. However, biologist Telané Greyling’s research on the wild horses over twenty years has revealed no indication that the horses have impacted negatively on the environment.

​Others have questioned how these animals should be dealt with in the park’s management plan – should they be treated like game and simply left to survive (or not) the droughts, or should there be some intervention? 

The final, and most hotly debated controversy, is that of the spotted hyenas. A wet cycle from 2000 – 2010 increased the number of prey species in the area hugely, with a concurrent increase in predator species. The size of the surrounding hyena clans also increased, leading to a need to disperse to new areas, including Garub. This did not bode well for the horses…

Drinking at the Garub Water Hole, with Gemsbok in foreground. Photo Credit: © Jacqui Ikin

In 2012, 49 foals were born providing easy prey for the hyena. By the end of 2013, the clans had learned to ambush and take down the adult horses. That year they caught and killed 100 horses, 50 of them foals. In 2015, due to drought and the subsequent drop in condition of the horses, permission was granted by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism to feed the horses. By 2016 the hyenas were taking down three to six horses a month!

Decent rains fell in February 2018, and the resultant good grazing improved the condition of the horses immensely. All supplementary feeding ceased. Since the adults (no foals had survived since 2012) were now in such good condition, the hyena moved on to farmlands, looking for easier prey and five were destroyed by farmers. Every single foal born in 2018 was still killed by the remaining hyenas.

In March 2019, after two failed attempts to catch and relocate the hyenas, three were euthanised, and three were eventually removed to another area of the park. Between 2013 and 2019, the wild horse population plummeted from 286 down to only 79 horses. 

 A foal born in February 2019 has survived, and she has been named Zohra which is Persian for ‘flower blossom’ and Arabic for ‘Venus, jewel of the sky’. This little filly has a jewel-like star on her forehead. Shortly thereafter, a colt was born and named Mirage. The last report I can find dated 5 February 2020 states that there are now 15 new foals. There have been no more recorded incidents of predation by the hyenas. Hope springs anew for the survival of the Namib horses…

A colt enjoying a dust bath. Photo Credit: © Jacqui Ikin

This incredible saga plays out in the middle of nowhere, at an easy-to-miss waterhole a short drive off the “main” road. Beyond discovering gems as you go, it is always worth taking some time to research an area you are going to visit. Without investigating prior to my trip, I would have missed this magical experience…

#SAWillTravelAgain #StayAtHome #BeSafe

Jacqui Ikin & the Cross Country Team

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