The return of the tarpan

  • 2005-01-12
  • By Olivier van Bogaer
Latvia - Tires. Hundreds and hundreds of black tires spread out as far as the eye can see across a forest clearing, drawing a big black spot on an almost immaculate landscape. This could easily be the scene of an illegal forest dumping site just about anywhere in the world, but this particular blemish is found at Lake Pape on the Baltic coast of southwestern Latvia.

The tires are relics of the Cold War. Soviet soldiers used to dispose of them on the lake, floating them in the shape of mock boats so that Red Army planes could use them for target practice. This entire area, until 15 years ago, was an off-limit military zone. Today, it is welcoming bird watchers and nature lovers alike.

With the exception of the "tire cemetery" - which for some reason has yet to be cleared - the Lake Pape area is an enchanting place. It consists of a rich mosaic of wet meadows, grasslands, forests, coastal lagoons, bogs, sand beaches and dunes, which attract many animals, such as wolf, lynx, otter, beaver, moose, red deer, roe deer and wild boar. It is also an important resting area for many migratory birds. In total, 271 bird species have been recorded around the lake, including the endangered lesser-spotted eagle, white-tailed eagle and the lesser-white-fronted goose.

But what is really attracting attention these days is the introduction of wild horses and other large herbivores such as the European bison (Bison bonasus) and the auroch (Bos primigenius), ancestor of Europe's domestic breed of cattle.

The last aurochs were reportedly hunted and killed in Poland by poachers in 1627. Since the 1920s, however, efforts have been made to "re-create" this extinct species by back-breeding domestic cattle from Corsica, Spain and Great Britain, which had auroch-like qualities - a dark coat with a light stripe down the spine, long lyre-shaped horns and exceeding one ton in weight. Half the size of a rhinoceros.

The auroch, together with the wild horses and bison, have all been reintroduced in the Lake Pape region by WWF International as part of a project that the global conservation organization started in 1999 to restore the area's natural ecosystem.

"We are working to make this unique site look the way it was in the Middle Ages," explains Ints Mednis, director of the Lake Pape project. "Centuries ago, horses and other herbivores were roaming freely here, grazing the grasslands and maintaining the balance between forests and open landscape."

The meadows surrounding Lake Pape were once manually mowed for hay, but as agriculture declined in the region they were soon abandoned. Consequently, the meadows started to become overgrown with shrubs and trees. If nothing is done to curb their growth, the forests will certainly overtake these grasslands and the valuable and diverse natural ecological processes that go with it.

"Normally a farmer would cut the grass, feed his livestock with it and send the animals in the mowed field," says Mednis. "So why not leave the entire process to large herbivores?"

This question was answered in 1999 when 18 wild horses were introduced to the area. Their number increased to 42 by the end of 2002 and currently stands at 47. Recently 25 aurochs and five bison joined them on their 400 hectare grazing area, which is being expanded on a regular basis so as to ensure that the increasing number of herbivores can be sustained in a larger area.

The reintroduced wild horses are very close to the original tarpan that once roamed the Baltic region in medieval times. The last of these horses were captured in 1808 by Polish farmers who crossed them with their own workhorses. The result was the Konik Polski horse, known for being strong and hardworking. In 1936 a Polish professor started selecting several of these Konik Polski horses that showed similarities to their wild ancestors and from there launched special breeding programs. It took several generations to bring back wild horses that most closely resemble the original tarpan.

The wild horses at Lake Pape were initially brought from the Netherlands, home to more than half of the world's population, which is estimated at some 2,500 individuals.

The horses, along with their other herbivore-grazing colleagues - the bison and auroch - have attracted much tourist interest. Since 1999 the number of visitors to the area has grown from 700 to more than 10,000 annually. This has not only boosted small-scale tourism development in a region in search of much-needed revenue, but it is also helping prevent many young people from leaving Latvia's rural area for the larger cities in search of employment opportunities.

Five years ago there were very few bed and breakfasts around Lake Pape. Now, however, there are 15. In addition to the employment these small businesses generate, since 2002 WWF has been employing four local guides at the animals' grazing area during summer months. The guides make sure that visitors do not get too close or disturb the animals. One of the guides is hired on a permanent basis throughout the year to deal with herd management and control of the grazing area.

"This job is an opportunity to stay connected with nature," says Sandra Sedlina, a 19-year old seasonal guide. "I like the project because it will attract more and more people and bring new income and job opportunities to local residents."

WWF has helped build basic infrastructure, such as a bird-watching tower and two bird-watching sites along the lake, as well as two nature trails - measuring 9.6 kilometers and 26 kilometers - and other various installations on the lake's shore. In addition, many information stands and signs have been erected. Local souvenirs made of environmental-friendly materials are sold at a kiosk located at the grazing area entrance, as well as at an information center in Pape village.

The project has also established reed-cutting activities, a vital process that helps restore open water areas in the lake. The reeds are cut during the winter, when the lake is frozen and the reeds are dry and of better quality, and then sold for roofing - mainly to the Netherlands and Denmark. Revenues go directly back to the community.

In addition, WWF is actively involved local municipalities and inhabitants in the reintroduction project development, where approximately 200 people live in the area in two small villages and surrounding farms. "This is important as in the beginning local residents were very skeptical about the project," adds Mednis. "They were less interested in conservation than in quick development, which they see as the best solution to increase their income. They saw wild horses as a source of problems rather than an opportunity to bring benefits to the whole community. Now they are more convinced."

The recent arrival of bison and auroch in Lake Pape's grasslands is likely to further boost tourism in the area. Mednis dreams that one day Lake Pape will be a true wilderness with many herds of wild horses, aurochs, bison, elk, and red deer, and where people will have the opportunity to enjoy life so close to such natural wonders.

The dream is becoming true.

Olivier van Bogaert is a senior press officer at WWF International