PHOTO-REPORTAGE: Following the trail of the Letea Forest feral horses - The Danube Delta Reserve

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The feral horses of the Letea Forest, a strictly protected area in the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve, are a controversy for botanists and animal enthusiasts alike.

Some say the animals left in the wilderness some hundreds of years ago have destroyed the biosphere of the Letea Forest. Others claim nature should be let follow its course while people should do their duty to protect it. A viable solution could be the project conducted in partnership with Tulcea authorities under which the Letea Forest will be enclosed by barbed wire fencing. At the same time, the Vier Pfoten international organisation is continuing its project to protect the feral horses in the area, thus supporting the tourist development of isolated Danube Delta settlements.

The first archaeological records of the inhabitants of the Danube Delta, which is known as Europe's youngest land, go back to the Bronze Age and come in the shape of funeral mounds of Murighiol and Chilia Veche. The presence of horses on today's Romanian portion of the Danube Delta was first recorded just some hundreds of years ago. At the start of the last century, the Danube Delta horses won the attention of French scientists, who compared some of the specimens with the Camargue breed, the successor of the old Camargue thoroughbred.

Communism, horses and the Letea Forest

Romanian media once reported that in the 1950s an official of the late communist regime ordered the culling of all the horses there for allegedly 'eating the cattle's horns.'

Some locals claim that under the communist regime all animals would graze only attended and that the officers of the Periprava labour camp guarding the political prisoners who would build the levees in the commune of Letea would be the only owners of horses. The animals were the collateral victims of those times' 'outlaws' that would set traps to distracts the supervisors to win time for the prisoners to take away the bread hidden in the bushes.

Locals remember that some employees of the Periprava labour camp living in the village of Letea would free the horses from their misery and let them run away to the Danube Delta hillocks.

'A former employee of the camp would live in that derelict house. He freed some horses to the hillocks and would take care of them. Those were the most beautiful horses I had ever seen. But he died and they were left in nobody's care,' says Ion V of CA Rosetti village.

In the Danube Delta, nature protection dates back to 1938, when the Letea Forest was declared a protected area by the Romanian Academy. In 1990, the Danube Delta and other adjacent areas, covering some 580,000 hectares, was declared a biosphere reserve, according to data posted on the website of the ARBDD. No mention of the levees built by the prisoners or the feral horses.

The Letea Forest was first enclosed in 1994, but the fence only lasted through 2000. In 2009, the local administration initiated a project starting from the idea that the population of horses that fled back to wilderness can become an integrant part of the natural landscape and also a tourist attraction.

'Infectious anaemia in the 1970s and 1980s meant a 20-year barrier to capitalising on the wild horses. The horses were expected to die because such illness would lead to their extinction, which did not happen. There are horses there of strange beauty,' Governor of the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve Grigore Baboianu said in January 2011, some months before the breakout of a scandal surrounding the killing of horses at CA Rosetti.

In May 2011, Vier Pfoten project manager Kuki Barbuceanu witnessed locals maltreating the horses, forcing them to get in a truck that would carry them to abattoirs, for RON 100 for each horse. He called the press and a mobilisation of volunteers ensued to save the horses and restore their right to life.

Horses reached the Letea Forest in search of food. Biologist Viorel Rosca says the horses fragmented the habitats of the strictly protected area. Once they are taken out of the area, the internationally protected ecosystems can recover in nearly five years.

'Carbon testing revealed that the forest was created over the past 2,400 years. The existence of a forest on sand dunes, with oak trees in excess of 2 m in diameter, is in itself a rare occurrence. The presence of the horses has changed the chemical structure of the land and fragmented the habitats. We do not want these horses to be maltreated or killed, but we want to be able to talk again about priority habitats in the Letea Forest,' says biologist Rosca.

Until the authorities come up with a solution to protect both the horses and the forest, the Vier Pfoten Foundation brings tonnes of fodder a year for the horses and fell trees so that the animals may drink water.

The local Danube Delta communities are now the ones that should get involved in the issue of the feral horses. With support from the Tulcea administration and other central administrations, together with NGOs, they can prove they love these animals that deserve a better fate.

AGERPRES (Writing: Luisiana Bîgea, English version: Colceriu Corneliu-Aurelian, Photo: Cristian Nistor)

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