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Azerbaijan fights to protect national animal from extinction

From Emily Wither, for CNN
updated 2:24 AM EST, Wed November 16, 2011
The Karabakh horse is known for its strength, speed and endurance. The animal is of great cultural importance to the people of Azerbaijan. The Karabakh horse is known for its strength, speed and endurance. The animal is of great cultural importance to the people of Azerbaijan.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Karabakh horse is Azerbaijan's national animal
  • There are less than 1,000 Karabakh bred horses left in the world
  • The government is running a horse breeding programs to save the animal from extinction
  • The horses are known for their speed and endurance

Editor's note:

(CNN) -- Tough, strong and noble; these are the sorts of qualities one would expect from a national symbol.

The fabled Karabakh horse is a rare and beautiful animal that is of great importance to Azerbaijanis.

But the country's national animal that can be found everywhere from its stories to its postage stamps is faced with extinction.

In the thickly forested foothills of Sheki, a small city 300km (187 miles) from the capital Baku, is one of world's largest and purest Karabakh herds.

Their owner, Yashar Guluzade, has been restoring the breed for over a decade in this unspoilt mountainous region.

He says that conflict and a difficult economic situation have led to their decline.

"At the beginning of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict the horses were continually transferred from one place to another and this was one of the reasons for the sharp reduction of stock as the movement of pregnant mares led to miscarriages," he explained.

Guluzade says that the places the horses were taken did not have the correct conditions and pastures to support them and it was as if the country had forgotten about them.

The government has now stepped in to try and protect the breed.

Azerbaijan's Ministry of Agriculture has drawn up a number of horse breeding programs and the law states the animal cannot be exported for sale.

The Karabakh horses are a symbol of national heritage and pride.
Khandan Rajabli, director of Azerbreeding

The ministry says it may consider selling the horses in the future to raise money for their upkeep but for now the focus is on breeding and protection.

Khandan Rajabli, the managing director of the ministry's breeding division told CNN that these programs include improving veterinary services, training and scientific studies on the horses' DNA.

"Instituting a system of identification like passports to track the breed has been established" he said.

Rajabli says that a German company is also assisting with gene research and establishing the horses genetic profiling so a system can be developed to confirm the breed in future.

German horse breeder, Verena Scholian, is one of the experts that have been working with the Azerbaijani government, advising them on breeding programs and technical equipment.

Scholian, who has spent decades researching the Karabakh's blood-line, says it's easy to see the horses appeal.

"I love handling them; they are calm, friendly and very sure footed," she said.

Estimates on the number of Karabakh horses vary. According to the Karabakh Foundation, there are less than 1,000, but Scholian believes there could be less than 10 mares that are one-half pure bred.

The mountain-steppe racing horse is named after the geographical region where it was originally developed. The Karabakh horse is the result of cross-breeding and stands out with what's been described as its "golden glow."

The horses are also known for their exceptional speed. The Karabakh foundation says that in 2004, a horse from the Agdam region set a world record; running 1,000 meters in 1 minute and 9 seconds.

I love handling them; they are calm, friendly and very sure footed.
Verena Scholian, horse breeder

The foundation's chair, Dr. Adil Baguirov, originally from the Karabakh region, says the horse has always been important to Azerbaijani's.

"Azerbaijanis are Turkic people who until a few centuries ago enjoyed a semi-nomadic lifestyle, especially in the Karabakh region, which is lush with grass and has perfect pastures," he said.

"Even as late as the 19th century, a sizable portion of Azerbaijanis, particularly in the Karabakh region, lived in mountains in the summer and in lowlands in the winter," he continued.

Baguirov explains that it was the horses ability to handle mountainous and rugged terrain that deemed them an essential part of life.

These days Scholian says the horses are mainly used for racing and as a status symbol for the rich.

Guluzade currently has 35 pure bred Karabakh horses on his farm. He says he will continue to breed them because he is worried about their future.

"My strategy for breeding was built on the premise that each pure bred mare should leave behind one offspring, preferably a mare," he said.

"I will continue my work in this direction where others have been irresponsible in the past," he continued.

The century-old breed is said to have incredible endurance and strength, qualities that Azerbaijani's hope will see the animals fight off extinction.

"The Karabakh horses are a symbol of national heritage and pride. It's an ancient, national breed that is inseparable from our national identity," Rajabli said.

Ludmilla Beckwith and Vladic Ravich contributed to this story

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