I had been with them for an afternoon – hunched on the ground under a stockman’s long-coat, watching and recording their behaviour for one last sample, one last time. It was early Autumn and the evenings were cooling faster once again. I did not regret that we would not spend a fourth winter in the Kaimanawa Ranges but the moment was sad for its finality. Uzuri, curled shivering beside me for being too long inactive, pressed her muzzle more deeply into my coat. I folded the completed record sheet away and prepared to leave.
Hearing my gear rustle some of the members of Candy’s band lifted their heads and turned to locate the sound – but it was just the ‘person & dog’. Satisfied, they returned to grazing. In four years of observation and walking amongst wild horses of the Kaimanawa Mountains they had become so used to us and our dogs that we now no longer even stirred their curiosity. Where once they had startled and ran at the sight of us, we now could sit with them for hours only metres away. For a time after they habituated to us we were a curiosity. They would tentatively approach us, investigate our packs and field telescopes, lean towards us, crane their necks to take great lungfuls of our scent through huge nostrils, and snort the scent out again in disapproval.
It is a magic moment to be sitting under a Kaimanawa Wild Horse when it leans over you without fear, but we did not encourage it. Uzuri would sometimes growl under her breath but we would remain still, not wanting to either frighten them or reward their behaviour. To do either would have compromised our purpose; to record and understand the natural behaviour of Kaimanawa Wild Horses. We had achieved our purpose, and in the process we had become neither frightening nor interesting to the Kaimanawa horses with which we worked. That is, with some exceptions and one of them approached me now.
Young animals are more curious than most and foals born during the study, aware of their mothers indifference towards us, would occasionally visit us while we observed their mothers and band stallions. The one that approached me now was born the season before and was seven months old. We called him Floss after his mother ‘Candy’. He would probably disperse from his mother this year and join the other young males in bachelor groups. Yellow-chestnut with a large white blaze and clear white socks he walked towards me. I hesitated. This was my chance for a goodbye.
For the first time in four years I lowered my gaze from him and extended my hand. In so doing I broke the golden rule of wild animal behaviour research; don’t interfere with the animal. Floss drew closer; very close. We had met before on several occasions and each time he would come closer, but only to sniff my air before returning to his mother. I wiggled my fingers, felt a whisker, hot breath and then a warm soft muzzle. I tickled a lip and it quivered. I stroked the nose… and then he was gone. He snorted, turned about, bucked and tossed his head and mane in play, and trotted back to his mother. He had-had enough; more human than he had bargained for. He watched me now from his mother’s side. She was unperturbed. He stepped towards me again, stopped short and watched some more. For a moment I still sat, appreciating another magic Kaimanawa moment. A wild animal’s trust is precious because it must be earned.
The sun dipped still lower. I rose, hoisted my pack, shouldered my telescope and commanded Uzuri to heal, least she spoil my peaceful departure from Candy’s band. I wanted to leave as I had arrived. I voiced a “goodbye”, more at the place and its inhabitants than at any particular animal in it. My voice sounded strangely out of place now. I turned and walked away, wondering if I would ever be back here and how long my Kaimanawa friends would continue to live in this place that is wonderful, in part, because they are in it. I wonder still – 12 September, 1999.
And so my field-work with New Zealand’s Kaimanawa horses ended, but it would lead to work on the rhinoceros of southern Africa. In this blog I will write about the science that has helped us understand the biology of horses and their odd-toed relatives – the Perissodactyla. I will recount my own work and experiences, and review the work of colleagues who specialise in understanding the physiology, genetics, behaviour, and ecology of these remarkable animals. There is very much that science provides to help us appreciate, manage and conserve the horses, zebra, asses, tapirs and rhinoceros of this world. This is a journey in the enjoyment of science and wildlife – welcome, I hope you will join me.