Australia fights wild horse infestation with gunfire from helicopters

«It has not been an easy decision. “No one wants to have to kill wild horses,” acknowledged the head of the New South Wales Environment Department, Penny Sharpe. Just before, the decision had been made public to kill most of the population of maroons that have roamed freely since 1800 on the slopes of the Kosciuszko Natural Park. They are considered vermin. A plague. According to political and scientific authorities, and also some environmental groups, the impact of this wild cabin on the environment is devastating and has endangered several endemic animal and plant species. The plan until 2027, drawn up by shots from helicopters, is to reduce to 3,000 the 18,000 steeds that now trot through this protected space with an alpine environment. And there, in the obligation to undertake that sacrifice, feeling intervenes. The horse, a symbol of strength and loyalty, is part of the Australian soul.

They even have their own name: ‘Brumbies’. This is also the name of a famous rugby team, the national sport. And several military units. And they appear on banknotes. And they were present during the opening of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. They belong to the cultural heritage of the continent. “They deserve better than to be gunned down,” said Jill Pickering, president of the Australian Brumby Alliance. Even so, the local government has just approved the sacrifice of thousands of specimens from the air.

In Australia, engineers have had to change the planned layout of some highways to respect the invisible paths of indigenous people, the routes that only Aboriginal people can see. They are heirs of that ancient view and, also, of the settlers who arrived a little more than two centuries ago. With them, in 1800 the first 200 horses that were going to set foot on the continent landed. They were British ponies, draft horses, some thoroughbreds… The four legs of those pioneers plowed the farms and controlled the herds. Horses were the wings of the first settlers who arrived from Europe. Racing and racetracks soon emerged. In 1850 there were already 160,000 horses.

Then came machines to work in the fields and vehicles for transportation. The horses lost their place. Many were abandoned to their fate and became savages, maroons. In a landscape where the presence of man is minimal, they proliferated. Today there are nearly 400,000. They have become, like kangaroos, a tourist attraction, and some are sold on the European meat market. The majority simply live without reins. At your leisure. And there are so many that they have become a problem for the environment.

Negative effect on the environment

Studies carried out in ecosystems such as Kosciuszko Park reflect their effect: they eat the bark of eucalyptus trees, which weakens the trees. With the tread of their hooves they compact the earth, which then does not absorb the rain so necessary in this dry habitat. They spread some seeds of invasive plant species in their mane and feces. They affect the quality of the water in the streams… In Kosciuszko, they also trample the vulnerable alpine flora that grows in its almost 7,000 square kilometers. Located 350 kilometers southwest of Sydney, it is a protected area, with 21 species of plants unique in the world.

This park is an oasis in which, according to the local government, a good part of the maroons are left over. It is not the first time that wild equine hunts have been approved in Australia. Fertility controls have also been used, but they lose effect after a while. Capturing them and moving them to another place is expensive and causes suffering to the animals. Shooting from a helicopter is the measure now chosen to protect one of the ecological treasures of the antipodes. At the end of October, scientists from the Australian Academy of Sciences sent a letter to the Ministry of Energy and Environment of New South Wales to request the reduction of the brumbie population and thus protect other species. His proposal has received political support, but “it was not an easy decision.” It’s hard to shoot a symbol.

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