Commentary

Protecting Wild Horses in Patagonia, Chile

By Maria Paz Zuñiga Barrera, DVM, WEVA Board Member

A wild horse herd has resided in the mountains around Cape Horn, in Chilean Patagonia, for more than a century without any human contact. They are considered one of the largest and last wild horse herds in the world, but are unfortunately facing the risk of expulsion from their home territories.

These wild horses reside in the Cordillera Darwin (Darwin Mountains), which cover more than 700.000 hectares (1.7 million acres). The horses also have access to a 35,000-hectare (86,500-acre) historic cattle and wood ranch (called “Hacienda Yendegaia”) as well as thousands of hectares of swamps, rivers, and glaciers—one of the world’s most adverse climatological zones. These horses have been able to adapt, survive, and reproduce, making them of great scientific interest.

Current population estimates are 5,000 animals distributed in approximately 100 herds formed naturally, living in territories that they select, mark, and protect. The horses move around the territory, among the valleys and the Hacienda Yendegaia, during the winter and early spring to eat, give birth, and reproduce.

They have always lived free, without any management or conservation programs, and their population has grown without human intervention, except on the Hacienda Yendegaia. For years humans were permitted to hunt the horses on the ranch’s land on grounds that the horses damage the environment. This drew the attention of people who have since monitored the horses.

A nonprofit organization was formed in 2014 to allow supporters around the world to try to halt the horse-hunting. The organization’s goal is to protect the horses in the future, since today they are facing a real risk of extermination.

This nonprofit organization, called “Fundación de Investigación y Protección del Caballo Epeison Austral de Darwin” (The Foundation for the Protection and Investigation of the Epeison Austral of Darwin Horse), also aims to conduct scientific research on the horses’ origins, to create different mechanisms for their protection, and to take responsibility for managing them sustainably.

With those objectives in mind, in 2015, ACHVE (the Association of Chilean Equine Veterinarians) and Fundación de Investigación y Protección del Caballo Epeison Austral de Darwin signed a cooperation agreement, in which ACHVE is committed to guide the process needed to determine whether these horses can be defined as a unique species or as a group of horses adapted to this very adverse geographical area through serious scientific studies. This would help establish management programs aimed toward their conservation and protection.

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