Why are there no indigenous horses in Africa , south of the Sahara Desert? It is due to two deadly diseases: Trypanosomiasis (African sleeping sickness – ASS ) and African Horse Sickness ( AHS ).
There are no horses in Africa, so how come zebras fare so well? “Stripes” seems to be the answer here. Tsetse flies are the carriers of sleeping sickness, and they dislike stripes. Added to which zebras (and donkeys) have acquired a high degree of tolerance to AHS and it’s rarely fatal, whereas AHS is usually fatal for horses.
But hang on ; a glance back into pre-colonial Africa reveals a powerful cavalry tradition in the Sahel: the semi-arid zone that rings the continent south of the equator and north of the Congo. The feared Songhay cavalry (Mali/Niger), the Kanembu in Tchad; the entire Dongola heritage of Sudan, Ethiopia and Cameroun; and the cavalry of the Oyo Empire (Nigeria and Benin) are all proud cavalry regiments. So, what were they riding?
Trans-Sahara trade routes have existed for eons: huge camel caravans crossed the Sahara bringing metal goods south and gold, ivory, salt and slaves north. While it is not recorded, this seems to be the solution to the issue of Sahel cavalry horses. Barb horses (from Morocco) were brought by trans-Sahara Arab merchants and constituted the backbone of all these cavalries. Barbs were highly prized but had a short lifespan south of the Sahara due to AHS and the tsetse flies (ASS), so they needed to be replaced regularly, which was good for trade!
This prompted efforts to develop a resistant horse, which were only partially successful. If you look at a map of Africa, you’ll see that the semi-resistant horse was produced where the River Niger makes its enormous bend, traveling towards Timbuktu. But, in order to obtain semi-resistance, ‘body’ and prowess were sacrificed, and the resulting horse was little and a ghost of its Previous incarnation. There were additional efforts to cross breed with ASS-resistant zebras. Nevertheless, zebras do not date outside of their own stripy species; limited success was obtained by putting stripes on a Barb mare to attract the zebra stallion, but not on a sustainable basis. Moreover, Zebras have short, muscular necks that do not lend themselves well to head collar and bit.
Indigenous African horses
The Dongola, named after a Sudanese town, is claimed to be an indigenous Sub-Saharan horse. The breed gained popularity in Sudan and was exported over the border into Ethiopia. It was most prevalent in northern Cameroon, on the opposite side of the continent, in recent years. The Dongola is a direct descendant of the Moroccan Barb (and hence not really indigenous to Sudan), yet the breed is still in existence today. It is now a poor example of a horse, and the breed is in decline and uncommon; yet, it was highly prized as a military horse in its day (12th and 13th centuries). It arose close to the north of the Tsetse fly zone.
The ebb and flow of horse priorities fascinates me. The Barb has played an important part in human history (even Julius Caesar rode one), but it has fallen out of favor in the past century. Its value is once again being realised and the export of Barbs from Morocco is banned in the hope that the stud book will recover to its former glory – which it undoubtedly will.
The here and now
Today there are riding holidays in every country south of the equator in Africa, how do they cope? Are people vulnerable to AHS or ASS?
What are Tsetse Flies?
The tsetse fly is one African inhabitant you should avoid. They appear like a house fly on steroids, yet they bite like a horse fly. Tsetse flies are not all carriers, but they all bite. African sleeping sickness is treatable, but if left untreated, it is typically deadly. Unlike the malaria parasite, there is no antidote. The sleeping sickness parasite, like the malaria parasite, is a protozoa, not a viral or bacterial infection. There are a number of things you can do to avoid being bitten in the first place, and this detailed advice is included in our Field Manuals.
African Sleeping Sickness (ASS)
The odds of contracting ASS via a bite are slim: most instances of ASS are discovered in local hunters and farmers who visit woods and have been bitten repeatedly. Sleeping sickness symptoms include weariness, muscular pains, fever, and headaches. Eventually, these can progress to psychiatric disorders, seizures, difficulty sleeping, coma, and death. There is no vaccine for the disease, which might seem quite alarming, but cases of ASS are in sharp decline – with new cases at just 5% of the number they were in 1995.
The secret to keeping horses healthy in Sub-Saharan Africa is simple. Both AHS and ASS are transmitted by flying insects, namely midges and the tsetse fly. Eliminate the insects and you control the disease, which is easier said than done. Insecticides and repellent sprays on horses are both beneficial. In Namibia for example, there is a route dating from the 1850’s whereby horses were moved from highland (midgey country but good grazing) to Namib desert (scant grazing but zero midges) in times of AHS outbreak.
Am I At Risk when riding in Africa?
ASS is not as common in East or Southern Africa as it is in Western or Central African nations, but there remains a danger for both natives and tourists. Travellers visiting rural areas and safari parks are at greater risk than those visiting city or coastal areas but it’s always good to exercise precautions to avoid being bitten.
Where Will I Find Tsetse Flies?
The flies tend to seek shelter in bushy and forested areas during the hottest parts of the day, so avoid doing walking safaris during these hours when your presence might agitate and awaken the lazy flies. Tsetse flies, strangely, are drawn to moving cars. Close your windows and keep your eyes vigilant while driving through highly wooded regions to prevent a nasty surprise.
Avoiding Tsetse Flies
Tsetse flies should not discourage you from experiencing your ideal safari. While the bites can be painful (akin to a horsefly bite or ant bite) the chances of a visitor contracting ASS are incredibly low. Nonetheless, if you’d prefer avoid being bitten by them, there are a few steps you may take:
Cover exposed skin by wearing long-sleeved shirts and trousers.
Wear colors that are neutral. Tsetse flies are especially attracted to black and blue
Avoid wandering into deep woodland in the middle of the day.
Tsetse flies are very minimally deterred by insect repellant.
Sleep with a mosquito net
At many lodges you’ll spot panels of black and blue fabric around the property’s boundaries. They are used to entice tsetse flies away from the lodge.
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Are there any horses in Africa?
The Namib Desert horse (Afrikaans: Namib Woestyn Perd) is a feral horse found in the Namib Desert of Namibia. It is Africa’s sole wild horse herd, with a population of between 90 and 150 horses.
Can horses survive Africa?
Wherever they came from, the Namib Desert horses have managed to survive for the past century. Their survival, on the other hand, has not been simple. With precious little water and food, the horses have had to compete with domesticated livestock. They battle droughts and predators, and land loss has almost wiped them out.
Were horses native to Africa?
However, many people don’t realize that Africa is also home to many unique horse breeds. Many horse breeds evolved in Africa, some of which are now extinct.
15 Native African Horse Breeds
- Barb. …
- Nooitgedachter. …
- Boerperd. …
- Vlaamperd. …
- Fleuve. …
- Dongola. …
- Poney du Logone. …
- Western Sudan Pony.
Did Europeans bring horses to Africa?
More than 20,000 years ago, during the Pleistocene (Ice Age), wild horses that developed in America traveled to the Old World, Eurasia, and Africa. More than 6,000 year ago in the Volga basin of eastern Europe horses were domesticated and in the subsequent millennia spread to other parts of Asia, Europe, and Africa.