Dozens of wild horses graze peacefully atop a Bosnian plateau where the silence is broken only by neighing -- a breathtaking sight enthusiasts are fighting to preserve.
"Chocolate is one of the strongest stallions here. He wins every fight and has never lost any of his females or foals. But he's very distrustful of people. He never comes close to anyone," says Mario Jozic, who has taken up the cause of the animals.
The statuesque stallion lives up to his reputation, strutting across the open grassland authoritatively to a group of mares with head hanging low.
"This is how he commands his group. The other group came too close so he moved his mares away," explains Jozic, who is surrounded by around 90 horses which he tries to lure closer with bread.
Some horses from the herd of brown, chestnut, gray, black and white coats pull their heads up in curiosity before seeing a familiar face.
Among the long, ungroomed manes and ruffled tails, those with foals are the wariest, moving off cautiously before a few come close enough to accept the dry buns from Jozic's hand.
"This is Sponger," the activist says, referring to the horse first to stretch out his neck and take the treat.
Jozic, 44, is passionate about the horses which inhabit the 1,300-metre (4,000-foot) high plateau of Krug Mountain, some 10 kilometres (six miles) outside the southwestern Bosnian town of Livno.
"I have watched them for years and I can say that the worst disease that threatens them is man," Jozic says with resignation.
But thanks to concerns raised by horse-lovers like Jozic, public interest has grown and authorities in the Livno region pledged recently to help the animals which are estimated to number around 200.
Hundreds of people come here every year to watch and take photographs of the horses which have lived in the wild for more than 30 years.
The origins of the herd are believed to date back to the 1970s, when villagers who left the area to work in Europe's affluent West returned and freed their workhorses, replacing them with tractors and other machinery.
At the time, they numbered only a couple of dozen, but they have since bred naturally in the wild.
"It is a rare phenomenon," Velija Katica, a professor at Sarajevo University's veterinary faculty, tells AFP.
"It's really incredible that they have survived in such difficult conditions. With little food, no veterinary care in a mountain where winters are so severe, and above all that with inhumane treatment by people.
"By living in the wild they have gradually developed survival instincts that domestic horses do not have," Katica adds.
To reach the horses, Jozic drives from Livno over rough terrain dappled with limestone rocks and rare shrubs.
He says the animals are in their prime during the mating season and winter, when the area is exposed to icy winds.
"It's most fascinating to see them on a wild run during the winter while their bodies are steaming."
The main threat the Bosnian mustangs face is from people, who kill them mostly to use their meat as dog food.
"We used to find their corpses with both back legs hacked off," Jozic says, blaming dog breeders.
"It is horrible. Police do react when someone reports this crime but we cannot keep an eye on them all the time."
During winter, the horses are often victims of road accidents as they descend from the Krug plateau to lick salt from the asphalt when hungry.
To help the animals, Jozic convinced a forestry office to build feeders a safe distance from passing traffic.
"It's sad when you know how little money it requires to do things right," he says.
"It would be enough to engage two or three rangers to patrol the area a few times a day and discourage those mean people. These horses can survive on their own under the laws of nature."
Protecting the horses is not a priority in the country still recovering from its 1992-1995 war and hit hard by the global recession, but Livno authorities recently announced measures to aid them.
"We will engage someone to take care of them professionally. They should be protected," says Livno county official Nediljko Rimac.
A group of nature-lovers set up a web site www.divljikonji.org and organised an online petition that has been signed by almost 7,500 people from the whole Balkan region since last December.
Its aim is to pressure the authorities.
Livno's tourist authorities called on local officials to adopt necessary laws to protect the horses.
"The interest of tourists is huge, but nothing can be organised before local authorities define the horses' status," says Slava Kukic, head of the Livno tourist organisation.
Many villagers want the horses to disappear as they sometimes ruin their crops, while others claim ownership over dozens of them.
"It seems that they belong to everybody and at the same time they don't belong to anybody," says Kukic.
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