LETEA FOREST, Romania -- Letea's wild horses were getting parched along with everything else in one of the world's biggest wetlands.
But as another heat wave bore down this month on this heavily wooded expanse of the Danube Delta, caretakers of Romania's oldest nature reserve appeared oblivious to the danger.
Locals and tourists had warned for weeks that the only two watering holes in the 3,000 penned-in hectares of the Letea Forest had dried up. One of them was caked with mud as a reminder of the water that normally springs up and sustains roaming horses in the dry season.
The wild horses, the largest of the animals dependent on the springs, were in danger of dehydration and death.
Ring-fenced nearly a decade ago in a controversial effort to promote the growth of poplar saplings and otherwise protect the ecosystem and encourage tourism, hundreds of the horses were prevented from reaching Lake Merhei, just a few kilometers to the west, or any other water source.
"Instead of fencing the reserve itself, which was intended to be protected from wild animals, the horses and other animals in the forest that are now subject to thirst were taken captive," a local, who asked not to be identified, told RFE/RL's Romanian Service.
Finally, faced with photos and RFE/RL documentation of the dire situation inside Letea Forest and with locals threatening to bulldoze sand obstructing the dormant wells themselves, reserve officials have arranged for sand to be cleared from both springs to allow water to reach the surface.
The governor of the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve also ordered the opening of a western gate leading to Lake Merhei to allow horses and other large animals to pass.
Within hours, horses returned to the watering holes and reserve officials pledged to keep the existing wells unclogged in the future and to identify sites where new ones might be coaxed up out of the aquifer.
The horses' plight underscores the devastating effects of drought and extreme temperatures on countries like Romania that are heavily dependent on the delta ecosystem and other waterways for tourism and trade as experts and activists urge measures to curb manmade climate change.
A product of centuries-old feral populations mixing with animals hailing from farms after the fall of communism, the Danube Delta horses are among the continent's last untamed equines.
Their rising numbers in recent decades -- estimates are of some 4,000-5,600 between the Sulina and Chilia distributaries -- have prompted conservationists to warn about the risk of overgrazing to endangered flora in the delta, a UNESCO World Heritage site whose waters flow into the Black Sea.
Controversially, about a decade ago, the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve Authority (ARBDD) and a local nonprofit organized the construction of a wide enclosure in which the horses could roam and graze. The idea was to ensure that rare flora, other fauna, and insects could thrive in the thousands of remaining hectares of Letea Forest outside the enclosure.
The Danube Delta's 5,800-square-kilometer reserve is a birdwatcher's paradise that straddles the Romanian-Ukrainian border and provides billions of lei in tourism revenues.
The $2 million project was completed in 2014 and introduced some 22 kilometers of double-fencing -- wire fences connecting cement posts, reinforced with another barbed-wire barrier -- to restrict the horses' movement to around 2,800 hectares of the 5,300-hectare forest and keep locals' cattle and other threats out. It also helps manage ecotourism.
Two watering holes, where springs of underground water gurgle up, lie near gates within the enclosure.
Dangers Of Drought
Eastern Romania in particular has been slammed by drought this year, torpedoing agricultural forecasts for wheat, corn, and other crops and hindering electricity generation already under pressure from the fallout of Russia's five-month-old invasion of neighboring Ukraine.
Maritime traffic on the Danube River, an economic lifeline, has also been hampered as evaporation and sweltering temperatures take a toll on water levels and gum up riverbeds, contributing to a rash of ship groundings this summer.
In July, Environment Minister Barna Tanczos warned that the drought was affecting about three-quarters of Romania's population of around 20 million people and urged residents to conserve water.
It was also in July, with much of Europe buffeted by more of what scientists say are increasingly likely droughts and heat waves brought on by climate change, that locals and tourists noticed that both of Letea's watering spots had dried up.
But weeks later, the ARBDD and its partners had still not taken action.
On August 9, the ARBDD issued a press release acknowledging the danger to Letea's horses and warned that in some cases they "can't intervene at all because any intention to unclog or extract water there would irreparably damage...[the] ecosystem."
But ARBDD Executive Director Viorica Bisca also claimed they acted in the "strictly protected area" to protect the horses that are dependent on the watering holes to survive.
Except locals say they didn't, and subsequent photos appear to back them up.
"It's enough to dig down just half a meter, until the water starts to seep up," a resident familiar with the drought conditions inside Letea Forest told RFE/RL.
The mayor of the nearby community of Rosetti, Antonel Pocora, lamented that the problem would take half an hour to remedy by clearing away the surface mud and sand obstructing the flow of water to the springs.
Pocora said the community had a bulldozer at its disposal but that such actions were strictly prohibited without the explicit approval of environmental authorities.
Moreover, he said, it's the job of the reserve administrator and its local partner, the Tulcea Forestry Directorate, to manage the reserve.
Desperate to help, collections were organized locally for tourist contributions toward diesel fuel for the vehicles and equipment that could widen the watering holes.
Pocora's office had asked the ARBDD to legally intervene with the Tulcea Forestry Directorate to save the horses as early as July 22. They were told a delegate from the reserve would "travel to the area to identify and apply some solutions in order to resolve the situation."
"No one destroyed this ecosystem -- not even the Ottoman Empire," another resident, who also asked not to be named, told RFE/RL. "Now Mrs. Bisca says we're destroying the ecosystem if we [assist] those two watering holes and wait for rain, when in 2019 and 2020 it didn't rain at all."
A prominent animal rights activist, Kuki Barbuceanu, appealed to the ARBDD on July 26.
Barbuceanu and his activist group at the time, Vier Pfoten Romania, had first taken an interest in Letea's fast-rising population of wild horses during an ill-fated project to cull some of the animals for meat in 2011.
"At this moment, the pit is completely dry and the animals, in search of water, will migrate to other areas of the [protected] forest, and those already affected will probably die," Barbuceanu warned.
Locals shared images with RFE/RL's Romanian Service of both watering holes still desiccated weeks later.
ARBBD Governor Teodosie Gabriel Marinov did not respond to phone calls or e-mails from RFE/RL requesting comment.
RFE/RL's Romanian Service published a story on the horses' plight on August 12.
On August 14, Marinov visited the affected area to inspect the problem for himself.
Marinov immediately opened a western gate of the enclosure, the one nearest Lake Merhei, to allow horses and other animals that couldn't otherwise escape the double-fencing to drink from the lake until the drought eased.
Then, over the course of three days on August 14-16, both of the watering holes were excavated slightly to allow groundwater to seep to the surface.
Within minutes in the case of one of the springs, dozens of the black and bay horses and foals were eagerly drinking from its muddied waters.