Surviving on rare tufts of grass and man-made sources of water, Namib Desert horses are an intriguing mystery. How did the horses come to live in an area so inhospitable? How have they managed to survive in the desert environment? And most importantly, will they last much longer?
Located in Southwest Africa, Namibia is the driest country in Sub-Saharan Africa. The Namib Desert spans for 2,000 miles along the Atlantic coast, and both vegetation and fresh water are scarce. But despite the miles of sand, gravel plains, and steep mountain outcrops, the area is not devoid of life. Several species call the desert home, and while horses are non-native, Namibia's wild horses have survived for generations.
According to an article recently published by CNN, feral horses have been a part of Namibia's history for at least a century. Their homelands include the barren plains on the eastern edge of the Namib Desert near the small town of Aus. They live separate from humans, but their existence in the drought-prone country has ties to both history and the economy. Those connections have contributed to their survival, but the future of the herd is far from guaranteed. With only 60-70 adult horses alive today, the Namib Desert Horse could soon disappear forever.
The History of Wild Horses in Namibia
How horses ended up in an African desert region is still unknown. Even with genetic testing and historical research, there is no way to prove where the horses came from. There are, however, several theories. One theory is that they originate from thoroughbreds that survived a shipwreck on their way to Australia. Others theorize the original horses belonged to either South African or German soldiers.
Wherever they came from, the Namib Desert horses have managed to survive for the past century. Their survival, however, has not been easy. With precious little water and food, the horses have had to compete with domesticated livestock. They face droughts and predators, and the loss of land almost wiped them out. The horses have been on the brink of extinction for decades, but the past few years have shown significantly worrisome numbers.
CNN reports 286 horses existed in 2012. Today, there are only 65 adults. The population is at an all-time low, and their future depends on new foals being born to the herd. But in the past seven years, only one foal has made it to its first birthday. Named Zohra, this foal survived while others died due to dehydration or predators.
A Fight for Survival
The area's hyenas (also an endangered species) are capable of taking down full-grown horses. Once they set their sights on a foal, there's little hope for escape. The threat from predators combined with the harsh environment has pushed Namib Desert horses to their limit.
As a non-native species, the existence of Namib Desert horses has always been a topic for debate. Studies have shown the herd poses no risk to the natural environment, but efforts to help the horses aren't accepted by all. There are voices that say the best thing is to let the horses die out on their own. Others have suggested capturing the horses and auctioning them off.
There are, however, groups that support the Namib Desert horses and fight for their survival. Namibia Wild Horses Foundation was created to advocate for the horses within the Namibian government and also lead management efforts. They manage funds used to maintain the herd's man-made water supply, and they provide nutritional supplements during times of severe drought. The non-profit association also fights for the herd's right to survival.
Can They Be Saved?
Saving Namibia's wild horses will not be easy. Their main threats—drought and predators—cannot be avoided. The hyenas also need protecting, and many argue their needs as a native species should be prioritized over the horses. The government has turned down several protection plans, but the herd's historical connection to the country and the fact they attract tourists has saved them—at least for now.
Last year, Namibia's government accepted a 2020-2029 management plan to help save the Namib Desert horses. The plan details appropriate efforts to not kill predators, but to scare them away. It also provides supplemental food and water to help ensure the survival of new foals.
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Even with these conservation efforts, the herd's survival is far from guaranteed. With no young horses to replace the older adults, the age gap will likely have disastrous effects on the population. It's imperative that this year's foals survive. We can spread awareness about Namibia's wild horses and support their conservation, but time will dictate whether these Namib Desert horses survive another decade.