The Asiatic wild ass (Equus hemionus) is a short-legged species of horse (family Equidae) native to the xeric mountain and desert steppes of Syria, Iran, Pakistan, India, Israel Central Asia and Mongolia. Similar in look to donkeys, they reach a slightly larger size, about 2.1 meters (6.9 feet) long and 200-260 kg (440-595 lbs). Their coat is red-brown in summer months and becomes yellower in winter, and they have a white-fringed black stripe down their back. Asiatic wild asses are primarily grazers, feeding preferentially on low shrubs and grasses including Stipa glareosa, Agropyron cristatum and Achnatherum Artemisia, grasses, Anabasis spp., Russian thistle (Salsola spp.), saxaul (Haloxylon ammodendron) and pea shrubs (Caragana spp.). When grasses are scarcer in drier seasons, however, their feeding strategy shifts to a browsing pattern and they will eat more broadly to include woody plants.
Equus hemionus includes at least four living subspecies (E. h. hemionus, the Mongolian wild ass; E. h. kulan, the Turkmenian kulan; E. h. onager, the Persian onager; and E. h. khur, the Indian wild ass). Another subspecies, the Syrian wild ass, E. h. hemippus, went extinct in 1927. Before molecular studies established it as its own species, the kiang, or Asiatic wild ass (now Equus kiang), was also considered a subspecies of E. hemionus.
Historically, this species ranged throughout Mongolia, much of China, the Middle East and Eastern Europe, however in the last 100 years its range has become significantly smaller and fragmented, with population numbers in decline. In the last 16 years its global population size has decreased 52%, to a current estimated population size of 8398 individuals. Threats to this species vary by local but include poaching for meat and hides, increase in human activities, competition for range land and water, fragmentation of grazing area and degradation of environment. The Asiatic wild ass is legally protected in Mongolia, Turkmenistan, Iran and India. All subspecies are included in CITES appendix I or II, and it has endangered status on the IUCN red list of threatened species. Researchers note that populations can crash to dangerously low levels in a very short time. Some reintroduction of species into native lands has been successful, but more research into basic behavior, ecology and disease control is called for.
(Moehlman, Shah and Feh 2008; Wikipedia 2014)
In the late Pleistocene, Equus hemionus flourished as far east as West Germany. Currently, at least one subspecies has been found in Russia, China, Iran, and India. However, the major population (over half the total number) of E. hemionus is found in southern Mongolia. (Feh et al, 2001)
Biogeographic Regions: palearctic (Native ); oriental (Native )
By the 19th Century, their range had declined significantly. Today, the most abundant subpopulation of the species occurs in the southern part of Mongolia and adjacent northern China (Feh et al. 2002). The species also survives as isolated populations in the Rann of Kutch (India), the Badkhyz Preserve (Turkmenistan) and at Touran National Park and Bahramgor Reserve (Iran) (Feh et al. 2002). Populations have been re-established as follows: Barsa-Khelmes Island in the Aral Sea (Kazakhstan); Aktay-Buzachinskiy reserve on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea (Kazakhstan); Andasayskiy reserve and Kapchagayskoye in southeastern Kazakhstan; Dzheiran Ecocentre near Bukhara (Uzbekistan); Meana-Chaacha, Kaakha, Kopet Dag, and Sumbar Valley in southern Turkmenistan (re-introduced populations in Kurtusu and Germab perhaps no longer survive); Sarakamish Lake in northern Turkmenistan; the Beruchi Peninsula (Ukraine), the Negev (southern Israel), and Taïf (Saudi Arabia) (Feh et al. 2002). The re-established populations in Ukraine, Israel and Saudi Arabia are not of the subspecies that originally occurred there (Feh et al. 2002).
There are five generally recognized subspecies (Grubb 2005):
Equus h. hemionus - the Mongolian Khulan (in northern Mongolia) (E. h. luteus - the Gobi Khulan in southern Mongolia and northern China, is probably a synonym of E. h. hemionus (Oakenfull et al. 2000, Grubb 2005))
E. h. khur – the Khur (India)
E. h. kulan the Turkmen Kulan (in Turkmenistan, re-introduced in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Ukraine)
E. h. onager - the Onager (Iran, introduced in Saudi Arabia)
E. h. hemippus – the Syrian Wild Ass (Extinct, formerly from Syria south into the Arabian Peninsula)
The reintroduced population in Israel is of hybrid origin (E. h. onager and E. h. kulan).
The largest surviving subpopulation, the Mongolian Khulan (Equus h. hemionus) is in Mongolia, where it was formerly widely distributed throughout steppe and semi-desert habitats, from the extreme west of the country to the Mongolian-Russian-Chinese border in the extreme northeast (Feh et al. 2002, Clark et al. 2006). The Asiatic Wild Ass has experienced a major decline in population size and range size, even in Mongolia (Bannikov 1981) and they are now only found in the Trans Altai Gobi Desert, the Northern Gobi, the Alashani Gobi Desert and the Dzungarian Gobi Desert (Reading et al. 2001, Feh et al. 2002), as far north as Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve in the Eastern Gobi (S. Amgalanbaatar and R. Reading pers. obs.). Recent evidence suggests that the population has either expanded or shifted further north and east over the past 20-25 years, but rarely crosses the Ulaanbaatar-Beijing railway line (Kaczensky et al. in prep.). There are important populations in the Great Gobi Section B Strictly Protected Area, in Dzungarian Gobi, and the Great Gobi Section A Strictly Protected Area in Trans Altai Govi Desert (Feh et al. 2002, Stubbe et al. 2005, Kaczensky et al. in prep.).
The Khur Equus hemionus khur was formerly widespread in the arid zone of northwestern India and Pakistan, westwards through much of central Asia. However, it is now limited to the Little Rann of Kutch in Gujarat, India. The khur probably went extinct in Baluchistan and the extreme south of Pakistan, on the Indian border, during the 1960s (Corbet and Hill 1992). There are some recent records of Khur along India-Pakistan border. During the last two decades Khur has shown range expansion along with an increase in their population (Shah 2004).
Southwestern and Central Asia
The color of the Asian wild ass varies depending on distribution and season. As a rule, they are reddish brown in the summer and lighten to yellowish brown in the winter. The underneath part of the animals is white or buff. These asses are characterized by a thick black stripe with white edges that runs down the middle of their backs. They also have small feet and short legs. Individuals may be 1-1.4 m tall at the shoulders. (Glenn, 1999)
Range mass: 200 to 260 kg.
Range length: 1.98 to 2.44 m.
Other Physical Features: endothermic ; bilateral symmetry
E. hemionus prefers flat country. It primarily grazes and rests on highland or lowland desert, semidesert or steppe. They are never found more than 30 km from a permanent oasis or spring. (Glenn, 1999)
Habitat Regions: temperate
Terrestrial Biomes: desert or dune
Habitat and Ecology
Asiatic Wild Ass weigh approximately 200–260 kg. Gestation is 11 months and breeding is seasonal. Peak birthing season occurs between April and September – within any one subpopulation, births tend to occur over a two to three month span with a peak between mid June and mid July (Feh et al 2002).
There have been a number of studies on social organisation and behavioural ecology of Asiatic asses. These studies have been conducted on several of the Asiatic Wild Ass populations throughout their range. While the explanations and terminology describing the species’ mating system do not necessarily coincide, there are similarities in the observations. In all studies, breeding is seasonal and females with young tend to group together in relatively small groups (two to five females). Descriptions of male breeding strategies differ considerably (Feh et al 2002).
Early studies were mostly descriptive. Both Solomatins and Rasheks long term studies based mostly on individual follow-ups described a harem type social structure in Turkmene Kulan harem-style behaviour (Bannikov 1958, Solomatin 1973, Rashek 1973) whereas Klingel’s one week observations described a territorial system. Bannikov’s short term survey in Mongolia described harems or family groups. Both harem-style behaviour (Bannikov 1958, Solomatin 1973, Rashek 1973) and territorial defence (Klingel 1977) social systems were described. Since 1980, several detailed studies have been carried out on various subspecies: Khur in the Little Rann of Kutch (Shah 1993), Khulan in Mongolia (Feh et al. 1994, Feh et al. 2001), and the reintroduced Kulan/Onager hybrids in Israel (Saltz and Rubenstein 1995, Saltz et al. 2000). Two studies, Shah (1993) and Saltz et al. (2000), describe systems in which individual stallions either defend territories or form all-male groups. Four social units are identified in Khur; family group, stallion, all male group and displaced stallion (Shah and Qureshi 2007). Stallions in the Rann of Kutch exhibit both seasonal and year-round territoriality with females, forming small seasonal harems (Shah 1993, Shah and Qureshi, 2007). Territorial stallions defend territories throughout the year in the Rann of Kutch. Females remain on territories during the breeding season (monsoon season), with some females remaining on one territory and others moving between territories (Shah 1993, Shah and Qureshi, 2007). A few mares continue to remain on territories all year round. Shah (1993) refers to the two groupings as year-round and seasonal harems. The term “harem” maybe misleading here, as the stallion behaviour describes resource defence rather than guarding of females, and the “item” at stake is land. Shah (1993) states that “the quality of the territory seems to be a prime determinant of dominance”. This is similar to territory stallion dominance witnessed in Grévy’s zebra (Ginsberg 1989). Within the Rann of Kutch, female movements were often limited to single territories, thereby creating “harem-like” female groupings (Shah 1993). However, females are able to move freely between territories, thereby describing a system in which female movement adapts to changing resource availability, as well as mate preference. Khur have territorial harem type social organization (Shah and Qureshi 2007). Rainfall and productivity of food resources determine the khur recruitment and population growth rate (Shah and Qureshi 2007).
Similar social behaviour has been documented in the reintroduced population of wild asses in the Negev, Israel. The study in Israel is unique in that it has documented a growing population of all known individual females and territorial stallions. The study has followed the population from having one territorial stallion to more than seven. Males return to the main breeding area (an area with permanent water sources) each spring, several weeks before the females return (Saltz et al. 2000). The majority of males return to the same territories that they held in previous years; non-territorial males either form small all-male groups in the breeding area or remain in the winter grazing areas. Females return within a few weeks and foal almost immediately. Females form groups on territories but group membership remains fluid. This fission-fusion social system (Rubenstein 1986, Rubenstein et al. 2007) has some females remaining on one territory throughout the breeding season while others switch territories regularly.
In the Gobi B National Park (Mongolia), both Bannikov (1958) and Feh et al. (1994, 2001) suggest that Khulan social behaviour is similar to that of feral horses. Feh et al. (1994, 2001) describe family groups consisting of individual males with several females and their foals moving to and from water sources, but the study is based on only a small number of identified individuals. In addition, stallions were observed to herd females. This behaviour is similar to that found in feral horses (although some of the specific postures differed) and is not common among the other subspecies studied. Khur have territorial harem where stallions defend resources and benefit from having access to mares on these territories (Shah 1993, Shah and Qureshi 2007). In Gobi B, stallions were observed to defend both females and foals from predators (Feh et al. 1994). Feh et al. (1994, 2001) suggest that khulan behaviour in Gobi B is different from other populations as a direct response to predation pressure from cooperatively hunting wolves.
Further study of known individuals is necessary to fully understand the social behaviour of Asiatic wild ass. It is likely that differences in social structure and behaviour depend on climatic seasonality, vegetation cover, and predator hunting pressures. Additional clarification of social structure and the factors that influence animal movement and behaviour (e.g. climatic and anthropogenic factors, grazing pressure, etc.) can provide a helpful tool in understanding threats to individual populations. The studies briefly outlined above demonstrate that there is a great deal of flexibility within the species’ social structure. With increasing levels of desertification and habitat fragmentation, all the above and future studies should be consulted in the formation of habitat and species conservation plans Feh et al 2002, Rubenstein et al. 2007).
The Asian wild ass is strictly herbivorous. They tend to eat perennial grasses (noncotyledons) that are of species of Stipa or Agropyron. They also eat herbs and bark. (Glenn, 1999)
Plant Foods: leaves; wood, bark, or stems
Primary Diet: herbivore (Folivore )
E. hemionus has a well-developed strategy for anti-predator defense. Stallions from more than one family group cooperate to chase off predators. The frequent occurrence of large groups aids this ability. Wolves are the only known predator of the Asian wild ass other than humans. (Feh et al, 2001)
- gray wolves (Canis lupus)
- humans (Homo sapiens)
This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
Life History and Behavior
Perception Channels: tactile ; chemical
In captivity, Asian wild asses have lived for 26 years. The oldest found specimen in the wild was 12-14 years old. Most E. hemionus live between four and eight years. A majority of these die between four and six years old, not long after entering sexual maturity. (Feh et al, 2001)
Status: wild: 14 (high) years.
Status: captivity: 26 (high) years.
Status: wild: 4 to 8 years.
Status: captivity: 38.8 years.
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
Equus hemionus are monogamous. Stallions tend to stay with the mare and foal year-round. (Feh et al, 2001)
Mating System: monogamous
Less than half of the foals born survive through the first year. (Feh et al, 2001)
Breeding season: April to October
Range number of offspring: 1 (high) .
Average number of offspring: 0.5.
Average gestation period: 11-12 months.
Average weaning age: 12-24 months.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 3-4 years.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 3-4 years.
Key Reproductive Features: seasonal breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; fertilization (Internal ); viviparous
Average gestation period: 339 days.
Average number of offspring: 1.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
Sex: male: 1187 days.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
Sex: female: 1157 days.
Other than predator defense by the male, the mare mostly raises the foal. (Feh et al, 2001)
Parental Investment: male parental care ; female parental care
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Equus hemionus
Below is a sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.
See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen and other sequences.
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Download FASTA File
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Equus hemionus
Public Records: 2
Specimens with Barcodes: 3
Species With Barcodes: 1
The Syrian wild ass (E. hemionus hemippus) went extinct in 1927. The subspecies found in southern Mongolia (E. hemionus hemionus) contains several thousand individuals. All of the other subspecies exist in the hundreds. Conservation status varies from subspecies to subspecies. (Reading et al, 2001)
The largest threat to all of the six subspecies is competition with livestock. The species is desired by nomadic livestock herders for harvesting.
US Federal List: endangered
CITES: appendix i
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: critically endangered
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
- 1994Vulnerable(Groombridge 1994)
- 1990Vulnerable(IUCN 1990)
- 1988Vulnerable(IUCN Conservation Monitoring Centre 1988)
- 1986Vulnerable(IUCN Conservation Monitoring Centre 1986)
Date Listed: 06/02/1970
Lead Region: Foreign (Region 10)
Where Listed: Entire
Population location: Entire
Listing status: E
For most current information and documents related to the conservation status and management of Equus hemionus , see its USFWS Species Profile
The largest remaining subspecies population is the Mongolian Khulan (E. h. hemionus) which was estimated in 2003 at 18,411 +/- 898 in four areas (Lkhagvasuren 2007). Southern Mongolia currently holds the largest population of Asiatic Wild Ass in the world, representing almost 80% of the global population (Feh et al. 2002). However, this population is at risk due to illegal hunting and numbers have declined significantly from an estimated population size of 43,165 in 1997 (Feh et al. 2001, Reading et al. 2001). There may be as many as 4,800 to 6,000 Khulan in the Kalameili Reserve in China, but this may be a seasonal population that is migrating from Mongolia (Pantel et al 2006). Offtake for the illegal meat trade is estimated at 3,000 individuals per year. Recruitment (number of offspring) varies from 3-23%. The potential net loss per year may be 5-10%. In 21 years or 3 generations, the population decline will be greater than 50%. If illegal hunting continues in Mongolia, the potential decline of this important population will be 5-10% per year. The Kulan population in Turkmenistan is also at risk due to illegal hunting.
The next largest subpopulation is the Indian Khur (E. h. khur) with an estimated population in 2004 of 3,900 in the Little Rann of Kutch (Shah and Qureshi 2007). This is the only subpopulation of Asiatic Wild Ass that has had a steady increase in population size since 1976 to the present. The population increase is associated with range expansion, khur has occupied areas beyond ~200 km away from its source population in Little Rann of Kutch (Shah and Qureshi 2007).
The Kulan (E. h. kulan) populations in 2005 were approximately 1,300 in Turkmenistan (Badkhys Reserve 850-900 and seven reintroduction sites (445) (Lukarevskiy and Gorelov 2007) The Kulan has experienced a recent dramatic decline in its main population in Turkmenistan. The population in the Badkhyz Preserve declined from 6,000 in 1993, to 2,400 in 1998 to 646 in 2000 (Feh et al. 2002). From 1995 to 2000 the estimated number of Kulan in reintroduction sites was approximately 320. In 1992 the reintroduced populations in Kazakhstan were Barsa-Khelmes Island : 96 ; Aktau-Busatchinski: uncertain; Andasaiski reserve: 164 ; Kaptchagaiskoye: 150 for a total of 410. In 1999, the reintroduced populations in Kazakhstan in these four sites was approximately 900 animals (Pereladova and Baidavletov pers. com. 2006). The reintroduced population in Uzbekistan in Dzheiran Ecocentre was 34 in 1991 (Feh et al. 2002).
Information on the status of the Onager in Iran (E. h. onager) is limited, but recent estimates are 600 in the two protected areas (L. Shamimi, pers.com. 2007). There were 471 animals in Touran National Park in 2000, and 96 in Bahramgor Reserve in 1996, with four re-introduced animals in Yazd Province in 2000 (Feh et al. 2002). There were also five E. h. onager in Taïf (Saudi Arabia) in 2000, and the hybrid E. h. onager x E. h. kulan population in Israel numbered 100 in 2000.
The global population of mature Asiatic Wild Ass has declined by 52% population in the last 16 years. It occurs in 14 locations and is severely fragmented. Generation length in Equus hemionus is seven years, age at first reproduction for females is 5 years, females produce one live foal every three years, sex-ratio at birth is 50/50, first year survival rate is approximately 50%, second year survival rate is approximately 50%, and only half of the stallions reproduce, yielding an approximately one-third of the population being ‘mature individuals’ (Feh et al 2001). The current estimated number of mature individuals is 8358. The estimated global population decline in the future is >50% due to illegal hunting.
Specific threats to particular populations are outlined below:
The main threats to the Onager (Equus hemionus onager) in Iran are, in decreasing order of severity, poaching, overgrazing, competition for water, and removal of shrubs (Tatin et al. 2001). Tatin et al. (2001) identified the main threats to the Onager population at Touran, and outlined the actions being implemented to combat them. Both the Touran and Bahramgor populations are geographically, and therefore genetically, isolated from each other.
The Khur (Equus hemionus khur) in the Little Rann of Kutch is the subspecies subject to the most direct threat from increasing human activities. The ecology of the Wild Ass Sanctuary, for example, is threatened by a canal building project – the Sardar Sarovar Project of the Narmada Development Authority (Goyal et al. 1999). There is growing competition for resources as an increasing number of livestock are grazed within the reserve during monsoon season. At the same time, salt mining, the major economic industry for local people, has increased 140% since 1958 (Shah 1993). Such increased activity is particularly disruptive as the period for salt mining coincides with advanced stage of pregnancy in the Khur (Shah 1993). The increase in Khur population and its range expansion into the human dominated landscapes has resulted in increased incidences of crop depredation. Agriculture has intensified with better irrigation facilities thus changing the land use patterns.
The Kulan (Equus hemionus kulan) has suffered a catastrophic decline in the late 1990s due to poaching for the sale of meat (Lukarevskii pers. comm. 2001, Feh et al 2002). The only naturally occurring population of this subspecies is in the Badkhyz Reserve in Turkmenistan. During the summer months this population migrates to the Kuska River, which is 100 km outside of the protected area. The critical situation of the Badkhys Reserve Kulans clearly illustrates how swiftly isolated equid populations can be decimated and potentially driven to extinction during a period of a few years.
The Mongolian Khulan (Equus hemionus hemionus) is suffering from illegal hunting for meat and skins, for commercial use in some areas (Duncan 1992; Stubbe et al. 2005, Stubbe et al 2007). Habitat is being degraded through human settlements such as herder camps which restrict access to oases, resource extraction such as mining, and possibly though grazing by increasing numbers of domestic livestock, particularly domestic horses and sheep. Habitat fragmentation and restriction of wide-scale movements due to fencing is a significant problem along the Ulaanbaatar-Beijing railway and the China-Mongolia border (Kaczensky et al. 2006, in prep.), and is also caused by roads, fences and railway lines associated with resource extraction activities. Nomadic herdsmen in Mongolia claim that an increasing number of Khulan are damaging the rangeland (Reading et al. 1997). In part, wildlife-livestock competition may result from an increased number of livestock following Mongolia’s shift to a market economy (e.g., livestock numbers increased from 24.6 million head to 28.6 million head between 1989 and 1995 (Honhold 1995, Müller and Janzen 1997, Reading et al. 2001). The negative impacts of grazing in Mongolia are well documented, especially where wild and domestic livestock overlap (Honhold 1995, Mallon et al. 1997, Reading et al. 2001, Shagdarsuren et al. 1987). Increased competition with livestock may result in further fragmentation of the wild ass population by limiting Khulan to strictly protected areas. In addition to competition for grazing land, poaching for meat and hides poses an increasing threat to Khulan in Mongolia (Duncan 1992, Reading et al. 2001). High levels of hunting in the 1980s severely decreased Khulan populations in inner Mongolia. Xiaoming and Schaller (1996) found very few Khulan further than 100 km from the Chinese/Mongolia border, suggesting that the inner Mongolian population is only a seasonal expansion of the Mongolian population. Wingard and Zahler (2006) reported that the illegal trade in Mongolian Khulan is removing approximately 3,000 individuals per year from the population. This level of exploitation is not sustainable.
As outlined in the section on geographic distribution, there have been re-introduction projects for this species in a number of countries, including Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Ukraine, Israel and Saudi Arabia. In an effort to increase the total number of kulan populations, animals from the Badkhys and Barsa Kelmes were translocated to other areas in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbzekistan between 1955 and 1991 (Feh et al. 2002). Recognizing the threatened status of the dwindling Kulan population in the 1940s, the Soviet government gazetted the 900 km² Badkhyz Preserve in Turkmenistan to protect the remaining 200 Kulan. The population consequently grew to approximately 6,000 animals between 1945 and 1993. However, in the late 1990s when the Kulans left the reserve during the summer months, they were killed in large numbers. The population was significantly reduced to approximately 600 animals. This history illustrates how quickly a healthy population of equids can be reduced to a critically endangered level.
To date, the introduction of E. hemionus in Israel has been successful. The animals were introduced in 1982. Due to a high percentage of male births, the population grew very slowly at first (Saltz and Rubenstein 1996). Starting in 1991, the population began to grow more quickly with 17 births in 1994. As of the 1997 birth season, there were approximately 105 animals, of which 31 were adult breeding females. The animals are found over an area of 4,500 km². The animals use three artificial water points that are maintained by the Israeli Nature Reserves Authority in addition to several natural springs. Detailed ongoing studies of the population examine population increase, range expansion, habitat use, and changes in vegetation density and species richness. Information from these studies will be used in the development of management plans for the population (Feh et al 2002).
There are some important research needs for this species. A large omission in our knowledge of the Asiatic Wild Ass is its status and distribution within China. In Turkmenistan and Iran, the management of the Onager and Kulan would greatly benefit from increased knowledge of basic behaviour and ecology. Such information would provide a better understanding of threats to these populations. In particular, as the potential for escalating human-wildlife conflict increases during droughts, a short-term study to understand the seasonal movement patterns of the Badkhyz Kulan population in Turkmenistan, and the places where conflicts are taking place, might help to address how best to protect this population.
In Mongolia, the following conservation measures are in place:
• In 1999, the Mongolian Government created two protected areas specifically for the conservation of this species, Great Gobi Section B Strictly Protected Area (Dzungarian Gobi Desert) and Zagiin Us Nature Reserve (Northern Gobi) (Feh et al. 2002).
• Research projects have been conducted to investigate the status, distribution, ecology and social structure of Asiatic Wild Ass in Mongolia (e.g., Feh et al., 2001; Reading et al. 2001).
• Several conservation organizations were brought together at the ‘First Asiatic Wild Ass Conference’ held in Mongolia in 2005 (AWAC 2005), where a range of conservation management issues were addressed.
• An in-depth study of the ecological impact of the Ulaanbaatar-Beijing railway has been conducted, including trials using Mongolian Gazelles to investigate the possibility of their crossing bridges or tunnels. This research may also benefit Asiatic Wild Ass migration.
• Activities in Great Gobi Section B Strictly Protected Area include: monthly wildlife transects, monitoring of Asiatic Wild Ass and other species such as wolves (Canis lupus) and Przewalski’s Horse (Equus ferus przewalskii) to understand interactions, vegetation mapping, and workshops to integrate park management with sustainable livelihoods (Kaczensky et al. 2006).
The following five actions are now those deemed most important for this species (Feh et al 2002):
1. The Kulan population in Badkhys Preserve has declined by approximately 90% in a three year period. Improved protection from poaching is needed both within the reserve and along the summer migration route to the Kushka River. The ecological requirements of this population need to be determined and an ecosystem analysis made of their habitat in order to prepare a long-term sustainable management plan.
2. Over 30% of the Khur population is ranging outside the Protected Area. The Sardar Sarovar Canal has changed the land-use patterns and the agro-economy i.e. from rain dependent crops to irrigated cash crops. Around the Rann, mitigation measures for the increasing number of wildlife and human conflicts are urgently needed. Prosopis juliflora, is an exotic shrub spreading fast across the habitat, the management needs to undertake thinning operation of this shrub for habitat improvement. Salt mining is the major economy for eight months in the year for the locals living around the Rann. This area produces 21% of India’s salt. The transportation of the salt is through well-defined routes. Presently truckers’ criss-cross through the area (habitat) thereby causing excessive damage to fragile arid grasslands (Shah 1993). The Sardar Sarovar canal has fragmented the Khur population. There is a need to evaluate possible linkages between the fragmented Khur population and its source Rann population. There is a need to understand the demography and immigration patterns of Khur in the newly occupied sites (i.e., Nal Sarovar Bird Sanctuary, Velavadar Blackbuck National Park, areas in Bhal, Great Rann and neigbouring state of Rajasthan) (Shah 1993, 1998, 1999). The existing sanctuary infrastructure and staffing needs to be strengthened which is presently inadequate for managing a Sanctuary of 5,000 km² (Shah 1993). There is a need for disease monitoring of domestic equids and other livestock. The sanctuary was notified in 1973, and the land settlement process has been initiated. The sanctuary has been identified as a potential Natural World Heritage Site; its evaluation is pending (Gujarat Forest Department 2007). There is a need for an assessment of the status of Khur along the Indo-Pakistan border adjoining the Rann. The Wild Ass Sanctuary was identified as one of the six landscape sites in India for biodiversity conservation through improved rural livelihoods, a programme which is aided by the World Bank (Government of India 2007).
3. Taxonomic questions need to be clarified and subspecies ranges should be demarcated. These data are needed for the Wild Ass subspecies in Mongolia and for the Kulan/Onager populations in Turkmenistan and Iran. Information from the latter investigation could also affect the taxonomic listing of the introduced Israeli population.
4. Investigation and development of plans are needed to address conflict between local human groups and Wild Ass populations. Today, grazing outside reserves and encroachment into agricultural areas threaten to decrease “good-will” towards Asiatic Wild Ass populations in Turkmenistan and Mongolia. Whether now or in the future, all Wild Ass populations will probably be in conflict with local pastoralists and agricultural groups. Conflict with human populations will lead to loss of habitat quality and increased susceptibility to high mortality during drought and disease outbreaks. Efforts need to be made to address current problems and to limit their occurrence in the future. In addition, the following conservation measures have been identified specifically for Mongolia (AWAC 2005):
• Enhance enforcement of existing protective legislature, including strict control at border posts between Mongolia and China for illegal export of carcasses.
• Control meat markets, to prevent illegal trade in carcasses within Mongolia.
• Map critical habitat and movement corridors.
• Consider migration routes when planning transportation routes and fences, including implementation of mitigation measures along fenced transportation routes (e.g., railway Ulaanbaatar-Beijing) (P. Kaczensky pers. comm.).
• Raise public awareness and establish education programmes to highlight the international importance and socioeconomic benefits of Mongolian populations (e.g., teach herders that they benefit from Asiatic Wild Ass digging waterholes in dry riverbeds) (C. Feh pers. comm.).
• Livelihood aid for local people, e.g., alternative income strategies. Conflict between local pastoralists and agricultural groups needs to be addressed.
• Conduct further research on population numbers, habitat use and migration, including further research to clarify the subspecific taxonomy of Mongolian populations of Asiatic Wild Ass (Feh et al. 2002), and rigorous annual population monitoring, preferentially using aerial surveys.
• Stronger co-operation between Mongolia and China to facilitate conservation efforts, e.g. formation of trans-border protected areas.
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
The protected status of the Asian wild ass has been challenged recently by nomadic herders and other farmers in Mongolia. They believe populations in southern Mongolia are becoming too large. The Asian wild ass competes with domestic grazers for water and food resources. (Reading et al., 2001)
Negative Impacts: crop pest
During the first half of the 1900s, Asian wild asses were hunted for meat and for their coats. (Glenn, 1999)
Positive Impacts: food
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The onager or Asiatic wild ass (Equus hemionus) is a large member of the genus Equus of the family Equidae (horse family) native to the deserts and other arid regions of Iran, Pakistan, India and Mongolia, including in cold regions of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. It formerly had a wider range from southwest to central Asian countries, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Russia.
Like many other large grazing animals, the onager's range has contracted greatly under the pressures of poaching and habitat loss. Of the five subspecies, one is extinct and at least two are endangered (their status in China is not well known).
The specific name is Ancient Greek ἡμίονος (hēmíonos), from ἡμι- (hēmi-), half, and ὄνος (ónos), donkey; thus, half-donkey or mule. In Persian the archaic word gur preserves the second syllable of the common Indo-European term that includes ona/ono (donkey) and ger/gur (swift).
The species was commonly known as Asian wild ass, in which case the term "onager" was reserved for the E. h. onager subspecies, more specifically known as the Persian onager. Until this day, the species share the same name, "onager".
The onagers eats grasses when available, but will browse on shrubs and trees at other times or in drier habitats. It has also been seen feeding on seed pods and breaking up woody vegetation with its hooves to get at more succulent herbs growing at the base of woody plants. During spring and summer in Mongolia, the succulent plants of the Zygophyllaceae family form an important component of the diet of the Mongolian wild ass. This subspecies is also known to eat snow in winter as a substitute for water. At other times when natural water points are unavailable, the Mongolian wild ass will dig holes in dry riverbeds to access sub-surface water. The water holes dug by the wild asses are often subsequently visited by domestic livestock, as well as other wild animals.
Breeding is seasonal, the gestation period in this species is 11 months, and most births occur from April to September. Females with young tend to form groups of up to five females. Males have been observed holding harems of females, but in other studies they defend territories that attract females. It is likely that differences in behaviour and social structure are the result of changes in climate, vegetation cover, predation and hunting. In Mongolia alone, the onager seems to adopt harem type social groups in the southwest and territorial based social groups in the south and southeast.
Onagers are a little larger than donkeys at about 290 kilograms (640 lb) and 2.1 metres (6.9 ft) (head-body length), and are a little more horse-like. They are short-legged compared to horses, and their coloring varies depending on the season. They are generally reddish-brown in color during the summer, becoming yellowish-brown in the winter months. They have a black stripe bordered in white that extends down the middle of the back.
Onagers are notoriously untamable. Equids were used in ancient Sumer to pull wagons circa 2600 BC, and then chariots on the Standard of Ur, circa 2550 BC. Clutton-Brock (1992) suggests that these were donkeys rather than onagers on the basis of a "shoulder stripe". However, close examination of the animals (equids, sheep and cattle) on both sides of the piece indicate that what appears to be a stripe may well be a harness, a trapping, or a joint in the inlay.
Distribution and range
The onagers' favored habitats are deserts, semi-deserts, arid grasslands, shrublands and mountain steppes. The Turkmenian kulan are known to live in colder regions.
Around 40,000 years ago, in the late Pleistocene era, the Asiatic wild ass ranged widely across Europe to northeastern Asia. They extended as far west as Germany. The current distribution of this species is vastly reduced. The onager have been regionally extinct in Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, Syria and southern regions of Siberia.
The Mongolian wild ass is found only in southern Mongolia and parts of northern China, but is by far the most abundant remaining subspecies. The sub-population in southern Mongolia alone accounts for almost 80 percent of the species’ entire population. All other populations number fewer than a hundred individuals. The Indian wild ass was once found throughout the arid part of north-west India (including part of present-day Pakistan), but it is now restricted to a small area of Gujarat. The Persian onager is found in two very small sub-populations in Iran. The Turkmenian kulan is found in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, where it has undergone a dramatic decline.
The Turkmenian kulan, Persian onager and Indian wild ass all have very small and highly isolated sub-populations, and so are at great risk of extinction caused by chance events, such as the outbreak of disease or extreme climate events.
The greatest threat facing the onager is poaching for meat and hides, and in some areas for use in traditional medicine. The extreme isolation of many of the subpopulations is, in itself, a threat, as genetic problems can result from inbreeding. Overgrazing by livestock reduces food availability, and herders also reduce the availability of water at springs. The cutting down of nutritious shrubs and bushes exacerbates the problem. Furthermore, a series of drought years could have devastating effects on this beleaguered species. Habitat loss and fragmentation is also a major threat to the onager. It is a particular concern in Mongolia as result of the increasingly dense network of roads, railway lines and fences required to support mining activities.
The Asiatic wild ass is vulnerable to diseases as well. A disease known as the "South African horse sickness" had caused a major decline to the Indian wild ass in the 1960s. Fortunately, the subspecies is no longer under threat to such disease and is continuously increasing their numbers.
The onagers were once under threat by apex predators from India, Iran and Pakistan, as they used to be prey for Asiatic lions, Asian leopards, Asiatic cheetahs, tigers, striped hyenas and dholes. However, until today, the Asiatic wild ass are being strictly protected.
The onager does occur in a number of protected sites where targeted conservation action has been taken. Domestic animals have been removed from some protected areas, and artificial watering holes have been made. Hay is provided for the species and there are hefty fines for poaching. Moreover, the species is legally protected in many of the countries in which it occurs. The priority for future conservation measures is: to ensure the protection of this species in particularly vulnerable parts of its range; to encourage the involvement of local people in the conservation of the Asiatic wild ass; and to conduct further research into the behavior, ecology and taxonomy of the species. Fortunately, several Asiatic wild ass research programs considering these issues are already underway.
There are various breeding programs for the onager subspecies in captivity and in the wild, which increases their numbers to save the endangered species. Two onager subspecies, the Persian onager and the Turkmenian kulan are being reintroduced to their former ranges, including in other regions the Syrian wild ass used to occur in the Middle East. The two subspecies have been reintroduced to the wild of Israel since 1982, and had been breeding hybrids there.
Widely recognized subspecies of the onager include:
- Mongolian wild ass (khulan), Equus hemionus hemionus
- Turkmenian kulan (kulan), Equus hemionus kulan
- Persian onager (gur), Equus hemionus onager
- Indian wild ass (khur), Equus hemionus khur
- Syrian wild ass or hemippe, Equus hemionus hemippus (extinct)
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- Clutton-Brock, Juliet (1992). Horse Power: A History of the Horse and the Donkey in Human Societies. Boston, Massachusetts, US: Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-40646-9.
- Heimpel, Wolfgang (1968). Tierbilder in der Sumerische Literatur. Italy: Studia Pohl 2.
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- Porter, Valerie (ed.); Ian Lauder Mason (2002). Mason's World Dictionary of Livestock Breeds, Types, and Varieties (5th ed.). Wallingford: CABI. ISBN 0-85199-430-X.
- Duncan, P. (ed.). 1992. Zebras, Asses, and Horses: an Action Plan for the Conservation of Wild Equids. IUCN/SSC Equid Specialist Group. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland.[clarification needed]]]
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