Return of the tarpan

Posted on 03 January 2005

Tyres. Hundreds and hundreds of black tyres 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 Sea coast of south-western Latvia.
Tyres. Hundreds and hundreds of black tyres 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 Sea coast of south-western Latvia. 
 
The tyres 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 tyre ‘cemetery’ — which for some reason has yet 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) — the 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 tonne 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, 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 how it was in the Middle Ages,” said Ints Mednis, the 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 over take 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,” continued Ints 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 400ha 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, which 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: the Konik Polski horse, known for being strong and hard-working. 
 
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 programmes. 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 here. 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, like the capital, Riga, in search of employment opportunities. 
 
Five years ago there were very few Bed and Breakfast Inns (B&Bs) around Lake Pape. Now, there are 15 of them. In addition to the employment these small businesses generate, WWF has since 2002 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. The others earn a percentage from the tickets and souvenirs sold. 
 
“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 9.6km- and 26km long — and other various installations on the lake’s shore. In addition, many information stands and signs have been erected. Local souvenirs made of environmentally-friendly materials are sold at a kiosk located at the grazing area entrance, as well as at WWF Latvia's information centre in Pape village. 
 
WWF also helped set up reed-cutting activities, which helps restore open water areas in the lake. The reeds are cut during the winter — when the lake is frozen and when 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. 
 
WWF has been actively involving local municipalities and inhabitants in the re-introduction 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 sceptical about the project,” adds Ints 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. Ints 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 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 
 
End Notes:
 
• The Lake Pape wetland complex — consisting of 51,712ha — was included in the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance in 2003. The surrounding area has been established as a nature park (Natura 2000 site) in 2004. 

• With a land surface of 63,000km2 (about one and a half the size of Switzerland) and a population of 2.3 million inhabitants, Latvia is one of Europe’s smallest countries. However, in terms of biological wealth, it is one of the richest. Latvia still has a large population of big carnivores, with some 400 wolves (more than in the whole of north-western Europe) and just as many lynx. About ten bears are known to live in the wild in the country. Latvia is also home to many bird species, the most famous of which is probably the black stork, which can be spotted here more than anywhere else in Europe. 
 
• Forests cover 45 per cent of Latvia’s territory. All of the state forests are certified according to the principles of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Rural areas consist mostly of farmland, unspoiled natural sites, villages and small towns, regional centres, and small industries. 
  
• Environmental threats include overexploitation of non-state-owned forests, illegal fishing, damming of rivers, and intensification of agriculture. WWF-Latvia — under its Natural Capital for Human Welfare Programme — aims to tackle these issues, focusing conservation efforts on rural development, forests, freshwater, and species. The project developed and launched at Lake Pape is part of this programme.
Today, 47 re-introduced tarpan, or wild horses, graze the fields around Lake Pape.
© WWF / Olivier Van Bogaert
WWF's has helped set up activities that promote sustainable economic development in the area, including reed cutting, which also helps restore open water in the lake.
© WWF / Olivier van Bogaert
Lake Pape's bird-watching tower built by WWF. Some 271 bird species have been recorded around the lake, including the endangered lesser spotted eagle, white-tailed eagle, and lesser white-fronted goose.
© WWF / Olivier van Bogaert.
Ints Mednis, Director of WWF's Lake Pape Project.
© WWF / Olivier van Bogaert