A herd of 40 Konik horses has just been released onto two islands in the Ukrainian part of the Danube Delta. Following the translocation of 23 animals to the island last year, this new group will further enhance wild nature through their grazing and aid the development of nature-based tourism.
Natural grazing boost
A shipment of 40 Konik horses has just been released in the Ukrainian part of the Danube Delta rewilding area. The animals, which were translocated from Latvia at the end of October, are now roaming free and will enhance wild nature through their browsing, grazing and fertilising. They will also help to attract more tourists to the area, thereby boosting the local economy.
Overseen by the Rewilding Ukraine team, the horses were released in two groups – one on Ermakov Island, the other on Kubanu Island, which is located in the outer delta and is also part of the Danube Biosphere Reserve. The animals released on Ermakov Island join a 23-strong herd of Koniks and a herd of 18 water buffalo (released in two shipments) here in 2019. Both of these herds have acclimatised well to their new environment, with three Konik foals and three buffalo calves born this year. Herds of four red deer and 12 fallow deer were also released on Ermakov Island in early December.
“Following the successful release of Konik horses last year, this follow-up translocation will increase much-needed natural grazing in the Danube Delta,” explains Rewilding Ukraine Executive Director Mykhailo Nesterenko. “The newly released horses will complement the water buffalo, Konik horses and deer already released and living wild in the delta, with all of these herbivores helping to create more diverse habitats and a richer biodiversity through their grazing.”
Unlike bovines (such as water buffalo), which are typical grazers, Konik horses also browse vegetation. The combined impact of wild bovines and equines (horses) on the delta landscape is therefore greater than the impact of just one type of herbivore.
“The grazing of Konik horses on Kubanu Island is especially important in the preservation of biodiversity-rich meadows,” says Alexander Voloshkevitch, Director of the Danube Biosphere Reserve. “The animals will also play a valuable firefighting role by trampling on reed beds. This stops wildfires, which are becoming increasingly common as a result of climate change, spreading from these beds to adjacent thickets of sea buckthorn.”
The grazing impact of Konik horses released on Ermakov Island is also enhanced by the fact the animals venture further into the water than water buffalo. Analysis of satellite imagery has revealed that vegetation on the island has become slightly more varied compared to last year – while this could be related to the introduction of horses and buffalo, this needs to be verified with drones and further monitoring.
A well-adapted animal
The Konik horses involved in the translocation were selected according to established family groups, which typically include elderly animals, breeding animals and their offspring. Like the extinct wild Eurasian horse known as the Tarpan, from which they are descended, Koniks are robust and well-suited to living in wild conditions (they are considered wild animals under Ukrainian law, rather than livestock). With an extremely resilient immune system, they can survive harsh winters and are capable of defending themselves against predators.
Towards a wilder Danube Delta
Funded by a 2.1 million euro grant from the Endangered Landscapes Programme, Rewilding Europe’s rewilding efforts in the transboundary Danube Delta rewilding area scaled up significantly at the end of 2018. Such efforts, which include the translocation of large grazers such as Konik horses, water buffalo, kulan (a type of wild ass), hutsul horses and fallow deer are focused on the recovery of natural landscapes, their natural processes (such as flooding and natural grazing) and associated flora and fauna across at least 40,000 hectares (400 square kilometres) of the delta in Romania, Moldova and Ukraine.
This latest Konik release is the last scheduled translocation of Konik horses to the Danube Delta rewilding area. The herds on Ermakov and Kubanu will now be allowed to breed naturally and reshape the landscape. Populations will be continually monitored – if herds grow too large some animals will be moved to other areas.
A growing tourist attraction
In addition to regulating vegetation and landscapes, the Konik horses, water buffalo and other herbivores of the Ukrainian Danube Delta are already drawing growing numbers of tourists, despite the impact of Covid-19.
Last year the Rewilding Ukraine team began helping communities in the rewilding area with tourism infrastructure development and marketing, with the goal of making it an attractive and well-known nature-based tourism destination.