The tragedy of free-ranging horses in Rostov Nature Reserve: an attempt to correct past mistakes | №34 Winter 2012 | Steppe Bulletin 
ISSN 1726-2860
(print version ISSN 1684-8438)

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№34 winter 2012

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Keystone species

The tragedy of free-ranging horses in Rostov Nature Reserve: an attempt to correct past mistakes

Alexander D. Lipkovich (Rostov Nature Reserve, Rostov Province)

The mass die-off of feral horses on Vodny Island, the largest portion of Rostov Nature Reserve in the middle of Lake Manych-Gudilo, is discussed. The horses are descended from work animals brought here during the time when the grasslands on the island were used as grazing areas for livestock. Ever since a strict protection regime was introduced, the size of the herd steadily grew and twice reached 400 head.

A massive die-off of the herd occurred twice over the last three years.  More than 100 animals died in 2008 and over 250 died in the winter of 2010/2011. The cause is believed to have been the grazing carrying capacity being exceeded, coupled with an uncontrolled growth of the herd size. The large die-off of horses resulted in the devastating degradation of the island’s ecosystems and resulted in serious damage being done to the image of conservation in the eyes of the public.

A number of publications that deal with the status of the horse herd onVodnyIslandand its management are quoted. The author also refers to some publications on horse breeding with respect to the size of pastures required to sustain populations. According to the latest census conducted in autumn 2011, the herd size is currently estimated to be 120 animals. The total area of rangeland on the island is 1,841 hectares, so their carrying capacity is close to being exceeded.            

It is noted that horses die in large number, not in summer time when access to water is restricted, but during winter when food resources are limited. The author is against changing the water supply regime from water being available through the driest time of the year to permanent access to water. This is because drilling a well-spring on an island in the middle of a salt lake may cause significant hydrological and therefore ecological changes in the island’s natural systems.

The priority objective for the nature reserve should be to avoid a state of crisis from arising through overgrazing, while the study of feral horses and especially efforts to maintain genetic purity within the herd are of less importance. One cannot expect an isolated population of ungulates to be self-regulated when predators are absent. Therefore, population control needs to be enforced.






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Siberian Environmental Center
Biodiversity Conservation Center
UNDP/GEF Steppe Project in Russia
Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan
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