Biologist on wild horses and bison: ‘Horses reduce fire risk’

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Written By Maya Cantina

Large herbivores shape landscapes, says biologist Johannes Kamp. He would like to be more relaxed in dealing with wild animals.

A horse jumps out of a blue container

After a long transport, a Przewalski horse rushes the container out of the Kazakh steppe Photo: David W. Cerny/Reuters

taz: Mr. Kamp, wild horses from Berlin Zoo were recently released into the steppe of Kazakhstan. The animals were flown there by a Czech military plane. Does this make sense?

Johannes Kamp: Przewalski horses have lived in the steppes of Eastern Europe and Central Asia for thousands of years. They populated them until the 19th century, together with saiga antelopes and kulans, i.e. wild donkeys. Compared to the savannahs of Africa, there are considerably fewer species, but still. The large herbivores eat grass and thus gain biomass – and thus reduce the risk of fire. In the vast steppes of Central Asia, there are now fires that cover enormous areas, 30,000 to 40,000 hectares. In Germany, we notice it when 5 hectares of forest burn down somewhere. Where wildlife is lost, biomass can accumulate, i.e. fuel.

Johannes Kamp, Conservation biologist at the University of Göttingen, and Jonas Trepel, Aarhus University, have investigated the importance of large herbivores for biodiversity in a meta-study.

So the wild horses are essentially a preventative fire brigade?

Yes, but they are also ecosystem engineers. Horses and donkeys dig up snow in the winter, clearing feeding grounds for other animals. In the summer, they dig water holes. This helps birds and other small animals. Where large herbivores occur, very heterogeneous patterns emerge: areas with tall vegetation alternate with low, grazed areas with numerous dung heaps. This mosaic creates diverse habitats.

Why did the large herbivores disappear from Europe and Central Asia?

Climate fluctuations have long been blamed for this. Today we assume that it was the spread of people and their hunting methods. Of the 57 species of megaherbivores that existed worldwide about 50,000 years ago – these are large herbivores that weigh more than 1,000 kilograms – only 11 remain.

Will horses, donkeys and antelope spread again if they are no longer hunted?

It is very difficult to build up larger stocks again. If seven horses are released into the wild in Kazakhstan, we need a lot of patience and it is not expected that 10,000 horses will be galloping through the steppe again soon. Border fences and roads prevent the animals from migrating and poaching still occurs. Nevertheless, such initiatives are good and valuable and can have a large, positive impact locally.

Can’t small animals design their habitats too?

Yes, they do this because of their large numbers. For example, marmots create open terrain in the steppe and thus create a habitat for certain insects. They also transport nutrients from the earth’s surface to the soil. But large animals can have a completely different effect simply because of their weight, strength and mobility: for example, an elephant can easily knock down a tree and thus create a forest. Migrating herds spread seeds over long distances, and saiga antelopes migrate hundreds of kilometers. Dung, carrion, everything is produced in large quantities. The sizes are larger.

Is it for this reason that it is important to reintroduce large herbivores where they no longer occur?

First of all, we need to protect the species where they still occur. This is especially true in areas where human pressure is not so great, for example in Central Asia or Eastern Europe. It will be interesting to see whether domestic animals – such as cows or domestic horses – can also take over their role. This probably depends on the species and the density of animals in the landscape.

How could habitats for horses or bison be created again in Germany?

In Poland it works quite well, where bison come to the edge of villages and nobody is bothered by them. It is also a question of attitude. In Romania, the population treats brown bears and wolves very differently than we do here. Where a species has once completely disappeared, it has a hard time when it returns. I understand the critics, as do the sheep farmers, but I sometimes wish there was more peace in dealing with wild animals. One way to reintroduce bison, elk or wild horses is in former military training areas. These are large, unfragmented areas without much pressure from use. At the same time, conservation must work intensively with the population. Conservationists should talk more to land users, i.e. farmers or forest owners, even in densely populated areas.

What role can bison or elk play in Germany?

They could open up the forest and make it more manageable. Our forests have become denser, bigger and darker over the centuries. Things were completely different until the 19th century, when we had large, unforested areas because too many domestic animals, such as cattle, grazed in the forest. Later, farm animals were banished from the forest and the so-called Hude, or forest pasture, disappeared. Even today, foresters want good wood; they have no interest in deer or bison peeling the bark. This is an understandable position. From a conservation perspective, however, we should allow more red deer. Red deer are restricted to certain areas in Germany. They must remain there. If they leave the areas, they are shot. The question is whether this makes sense. A completely self-sufficient herd of wisents that roams completely freely through Germany. But I can’t really imagine it yet.

However, bison and elk migrate from the east to Germany.

This is the ideal case, a natural process. If there is no other option, reintroducing Przewalski horses to Kazakhstan by plane from Germany is the best solution, but that is not exactly sustainable. The plane emits CO2It means stress for the horses and the move can also go wrong. If the animals migrate independently, their return is more effective, the animals slowly get to know their environment and they can develop migration routes. Just like it worked for the Wolves twenty years ago. This is a real success story.

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