Przewalski Horse Numbers Dwindling near Chernobyl

Small herds of Przewalski horses in the Chernobyl nuclear disaster area in the Ukraine are dwindling, perhaps due to human predation, according to a Chernobyl biology expert.

Poverty-stricken people living close to the herds are suspected of poaching the horses for their meat, either to eat for themselves or to sell, the BBC reported in late July. But this is just one explanation, Timothy Mousseau, PhD, professor of biological sciences and associate vice president for research at the University of South Carolina, said. What's really happening to these critically endangered animals--estimated at only 30-40 individuals, down from 65 in 2003--is yet to be confirmed.

"Details are scant," Mousseau said. Other hypotheses include wolf attacks or the effects of possible radiation the horses consume while grazing within the actual "exclusion zone"--the area within a 19-mile radius of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor that exploded in 1986. However, wolf numbers seem to be low--especially in the exclusion zone, Mousseau says--and no known studies have been carried out to show how radiation has affected horse health there.

Should the poaching explanation prove to be correct, consuming such horsemeat would most likely present a significant risk to human health as well, since the horses have been grazing in the most contaminated areas, Mousseau added.

Miscounting the horses could also be at least a partial explanation, he noted, as the original herd has since divided into separate herds, which makes it more difficult to estimate numbers by sight only.

"What needs to be done is to radio collar the horses so that they can monitored at all times," Mousseau said. "Additionally, a program should be put in place to collect biological materials to determine health status and long-term impacts on individuals."

Although this has been in consideration for several years, lack of funding for the program has prevented it from being carried out.

The herd was purposefully placed at Chernobyl with "noble intentions," according to Mousseau. However, there are significant genetic risks due to inbreeding within this small group and to new, radiation-spurred mutations from the "highly mutagenic environment," he said. The benefits of the herd living at Chernobyl remain questionable.

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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