Wild horses & cattle at risk in the Danube Delta

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, December 2005:

Wild horses & cattle at risk in the Danube Delta
by Andreea Plescan with further research by ANIMAL PEOPLE

Untamed and undiscovered by tourism and
development, the Danube Delta is home to more
than 300 bird species, 160 fish species, and
more than 800 plant families.
Protected as a wetlands biosphere
reserve, the Romanian portion of the Danube
Delta occupies 2,622 square miles of channels and
canals, widening into tree-fringed lakes, reed
islands, marshes, some oak forest intertwined
with lianas and creepers, desert dunes, and
some traditional fishing villages.
The Danube Delta is also home to the
largest population of wild horses and cattle in
Europe. Their combined population is officially
estimated at about 7,500. Some escaped from
farms to join wild herds during the 2005 floods.
Some escaped earlier, or their ancestors did.
Many were released to graze on the biosphere
reserve by farmers who hoped to recapture them
later, but abandoned them when horse flesh and
beef prices dropped.

A few of the horses may have ancestors
who were never tamed. The American Museum of
Natural History classifies the Danube Delta
horses as “feral” rather than wild, but
acknowledges that never domesticated horse herds
might have persisted there into the Middle Ages.
Because the horses and cattle of the
Danube Delta are considered feral, they have no
more legal protection than any other strayed
livestock. Believed to be rapidly increasing in
number, they are deemed a threat to the health
of the woods in protected areas like Letea and
Caraorman. The Sfantu George resort advertises
the presence of wild horses as an attraction,
but raids by wild stallions who hope to attract
females from riding stables have reportedly
menaced eco-tourism projects of the Forestry
Directorate in Tulcea County.
Several years ago, the Danube Delta
horses were believed to be an economic resource.
Roundups were organized to sell wild horses to
Italy for meat and hides. However, after
infectious equine anemia was discovered among
them, exports of horse flesh from this region
were prohibited.
There is still some trade in Danube Delta
horses within Romania, involving wild horses who
are hot-iron branded and broken by residents of
the village of Cardon, near Sulina. After more
than six months of taming, constantly lashed to
a pillar, each horse is supposed to be released.
Those who remain within a courtyard are kept.
Those who run to the woods are free, until
captured again.
The wild horses and cattle of the Danube
Delta are now slated for extermination. The
death of a 45-year-old shepherd from anthrax in
early May 2005 provided the pretext. The man
died in Piatra-Neamt, far to the north, but in
early August 2005, the Food and Veterinary
Safety Authority announced that the Danube Delta
biosphere reserve horses and cattle were all
considered to be a reservoir for anthrax, and
would be slaughtered and incinerated as alleged
threats to public health, agriculture, and the
Martin Hugh Jones, livestock moderator
for the ProMed electronic bulletin board
maintained by the International Society for
Infectious Diseases, was immediately skeptical.
“Anthrax is not a chronic infection, so the risk
is not as described, nor is it contagious,”
Jones pointed out. “In July 2000, there were
widespread outbreaks in the Danube Delta, and
some 29 people were hospitalized. The government
spent $230,000 in emergency control activities.
Semi-feral populations like this can readily
maintain a range of problems,” Jones conceded,
“especially if not routinely rounded up,
vaccinated, and treated for parasites.
However,” Jones suspected, “The Romanian
authoritiesŠmay just have lost all patience with
[local farmers’] lack of responsibility.”
The arrival of avian flu H5N1 in the same
region has diverted government resources.
Massacres of wild horses and cattle in the Danube
Delta have not yet been reported. However,
those animals who survive this winter may be in
jeopardy come spring.
[Andreea Plescan, of Bucharest, may be
reached c/o <andreea198120@yahoo.com>.]

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