I mentioned yesterday that the Konik deserved its own post, so here goes. It’s a story of sex, genetics and Nazis.
The name Konik is a Polish word for ‘small horse’, the equivalent of our word ‘pony’. Hence when they are referred to as Konik Ponies, we are engaged in a bit of grammatical redundancy!
Like all modern horses, the scientific name is Equus ferus caballus. This covers all living breeds of horse and pony, barring Przewalskii’s Horse, Equus ferus przewalskii.
So where do the Nazis come into this?
In the early twentieth century, a Polish scientist became convinced the Konik wasn’t a domesticated horse, but was instead a direct line from the extinct wild horse, the Tarpan (Equus ferus ferus). He based his conclusion on the build of the horse, the markings on the foals, and the fact some adults turned white in winter.
He was convinced that he could ‘back breed’ selected Koniks to bring back the extinct Tarpan. You can think of this a little like Jurassic Park, with less fanciful science and a lot more horse sex!
Following the German invasion of Poland, much of the stock he had bred was shipped to Germany, where it contributed to a similar programme being run at a Berlin Zoo by the Heck brothers.
For the Nazis, the idea you could ‘breed back’ to other forms supported their racist ideologies, meaning these sturdy little horses found themselves subsumed in some pretty evil philosophy. After all, if you could revert these horses back to a superior form, you could do the same with people. Unfortunately for the Koniks, as the Germans were increasingly pinned back into Munich and Berlin towards the end of World War II food became short, and the Koniks were a readily available source of fresh meat.
With the Nazis defeated, the remaining population of Koniks was put back into the wilds of Poland. Modern science defeated the notion of ‘back-breeding’ these horses. Genetic studies have shown that Koniks, like all other living breeds of horse, are much more closely related to the same domesticated stock.
They have been introduced to manage areas of nature reserves in the UK for around 15 years now, and are a real success. Their grazing opens up areas that may otherwise become overgrown, forcing artificial intervention. This provides breeding habitat for birds like Skylark, Yellow Wagtail, Curlew, Corn Crake, and many waders.
It may not be a Tarpan, but it is doing a great job of filling in for our now extinct wild horses.