HYDRA (AP) – It is one of the most recognized images of Greece: a donkey carrying an elderly villager along narrow, winding streets or dusty country lanes. But it could soon be consigned to history books and postcards, a snapshot of a bygone era. Greece’s donkeys are disappearing – fast. If current trends continue, experts warn, they will have all but vanished within the next two decades. «The population of donkeys in Greece has been falling dramatically in the past few years,» said Giorgos Arsenos, assistant professor at the Aristotle University’s School of Veterinary Medicine. In the last 50 years the number of donkeys in the country has plummeted by 96 percent, falling from nearly half a million in the 1950s to just over 18,000 in 1996, he said. Many more died during this summer’s devastating fires that swept the country’s southern Peloponnese – where about 40 percent of Greece’s donkeys live. By the end of the year, there will be fewer than 16,000 left, Arsenos estimates. «If this reduction continues, then within just 10 to 15 years the donkey population will fall below 1,000 animals,» he said. The trend is particular to northern Mediterranean countries. Elsewhere, the donkey population – globally about 40 million – is growing, explained researcher Paul Starkey, attending an international conference on the role of donkeys and mules in the Mediterranean. But in this part of the world, there is a massive reduction. Used for centuries for everything from transporting people and goods to plowing fields, the donkey has fallen victim to modernization. «Where you can replace donkeys with motorized transport… then people will do that, because it’s more convenient,» Starkey said. Almost everywhere in Greece, cars, trucks, tractors and motorcycles have taken over. Everywhere, that is, except for Hydra. For on this picturesque island, a short hydrofoil trip from Greece’s sprawling, congested capital, the donkey – and the mule – keep the town running. With motorized vehicles banned from the island – no cars, no bikes, no trucks – the only form of land transport is equine. Whether it is tourists looking for a way to get their luggage to their hotel or residents moving house, the only way to transport anything is on the back of an animal. Donkeys even carry out much of the island’s garbage. «Here we have only mules and donkeys as our land transportation. This is a remarkable fact within Europe,» said Ed Emery, who organized the weekend conference on Hydra to examine the reasons behind the massive drop in population and what can be done to stop it. At the edge of the dock in the town’s harbor, the donkeys and mules stand patiently in a row, their owners and handlers waiting for the boats to sail in. As visitors and locals stream off the latest passenger ship, workers load building materials onto the animals’ backs. «They transport everything, from sewing pins to electrical refrigerators, anything you can imagine,» said Yiannis, a mule owner waiting at the port for someone to hire his animals – tourists looking for a brief ride through the town or residents who need help transporting shopping or moving materials. He would give only his first name. «I keep them because I’ve had them since I was a child, and I love them,» he says of his two mules – a 15-year-old and a 20-year-old. He charges about 10 euros for a tourist ride, and up to four times that much for removals. Hydra has roughly 1,200 donkeys and mules, the island’s mayor says – nearly 10 percent of the country’s total population. Only the town hall has motorized transport – one garbage truck and a small pickup truck used sparingly. «The donkey and the mule in Hydra has been woven into the fabric of our way of life,» Mayor Costas Anastopoulos said. «Without these sympathetic animals, I believe it would be impossible for us to live. All transportation, from people to the materials needed to build a house, are done with these animals,» he said. But Hydra is an isolated case in a country where progress and modernization have often encroached on the traditional way of life. In the rest of the country, the future of the donkey appears bleak. «This is a worrying phenomenon,» said Arsenos, the veterinary professor at the conference. «We are trying to see… what can be done regarding the use of these animals, to what extent their use can change, so they do not constitute pitiful remnants of a culture that is being lost.» Delegates at the conference came up with various suggestions: changing their traditional role from one of beasts of burden to recreation and companionship and setting up a national protection program to ensure that the genetics of rare breeds are maintained. «They are a cultural heritage that we should safeguard for the next generation,» Arsenos said.