The feral horses of Garub
Wild horses in the Namib
An attraction in the southern part of the Namib are the Feral Horses of Garub. These horses have successfully bypassed their role as working or breeding horses. They are independent of humans (more or less) and they fascinate us with their adapted live in a very inhospitable area and infinite freedom.
Normally wild horses are not found throughout southern Africa as the climatic conditions are not typical for horses to live in. Horses were only introduced by European immigrants with the colonization of southern Africa. Thus the question arises where these horses come from and why they chose to settle here, where temperatures soar and were food is scarce and hard to find.
Theories regarding the origin
Different theories regarding the origin of these horses exist. It is certain that the horses are no true wild horses, but that they originate from domestic horses. But from which ones? Here are some explanation attempts:
1. In the area of the Namib Desert domestic horses have been bred by Hansheinrich von Wolf at Duwisib and by Emil Kremplin at Kubub. These studs are situated about 250 km north-east of Garub (where the feral horses reside today). Thus the feral horses might originate from horses that went astray or were let free during the turmoil of war in 1915. However the fact that the amount of horses would not have been enough to generate today’s population of feral horses contradicts this theory.
2. Another theory explains that the wild horses originate from the horses of the German army – the “Schutztruppe” – which were let loose or went astray during the retreat from the South African army in 1915.
3. Again another explanation refers to a German baron who stranded with a ship load of horses and other animals about 25 km south of the Orange mouth at the end of the 19th century.
4. During the year 1915, during the First World War and the combat against the German Schutztruppe, about 10,000 South African soldiers with 6,000 horses were stationed at Garub. A German air force lieutenant was able to drop a bomb into the enemy’s camp, and about 1700 of the surviving horses fled into the desert. It is not very likely that big efforts were made to catch these horses again. There surely would not have been enough time as the South Africans were busy chasing after the retreating Germans.
5. After the latest research, where the historian Water Rusch and the tourism entrepreneur Mannfred Goldbeck from Namibia deserve mentioning, the following theory has been developed: the stud horses of the breeding farm at Duwisib and Kubub had many resemblances. These specific characteristics, especially amongst the Kremplin stud, one can still find today amongst the feral horses. Thus these horses must have met with the majority of South African horses in the mountains of Aus. Several natural fountains existed here, supplying the horses with water.
The survival of the horses
Two main factors have favoured the survival of the horses. With the discovery of the first diamond in 1908 and the establishment of the huge Restricted Diamond Areas, which expanded up to 100 km from the coast inland, the area of Garub where the majority of the feral horses stayed became restricted to everybody, including hunters and horse traders. Thus the feral horses had 80 years time to adapt to the harsh environment and to live undisturbed. Today one mentions an own species, the “Namib”. The other factor was the existence of a borehole at Garub that supplied the nearby railway line with water. A watering place developed from this borehole, which became the central place of residence for the horses.
The Feral Horses of the Namib today
Today the horses can be viewed from a shelter put up against the heat close to the water hole. This has also been made possible by the integration of 350 km² of the Restricted Diamond Area 2 into the Namib Naukluft Park in 1986. To get to Garub one hast to travel along the B4 from Aus to Lüderitz. 20 km behind Aus a small gravel road leads to the above mentioned water hole.
Today’s population counts between 250 and 300 animals. Since 1993 the number and the behaviour of the horses are being documented by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism. In years of drought the numbers may decline rapidly, as was the case in 1992 and 1998/99. Fund raising campaigns in the past have evoked great interest, but were not very successful.
The social behaviour of the horses is adapted to external conditions. It has been reported that the horses delay the energy-sapping rotation between feeding grounds and water hole. One or two stallions together with about 20 mares and foals form a breeding herd. The alpha male decides when the herd leaves for the feeding ground or the water hole. It has been observed that the alpha can change frequently. One reason is the absence of predators, thus no dominant males rule over a longer period of time. Is a foal threatened by a jackal for example, the mother will take care of it; the stallion only assists by shielding the whole herd. Although hierarchy fights between stallions exist they hardly ever lead to serious injuries. No one fights for the horse ladies, and it would not make any sense anyway as they chose their partners themselves.