Ass, African Wild

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Ass, African wild

Equus africanus (equus asinus)

phylum: Chordata

class: Mammalia

order: Perissodactyla

family: Equidae

status: Critically endangered, IUCN Endangered, ESA

range: Chad, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan

Description and biology

The African wild ass is one of only seven surviving species of equids (horse family). Of these seven species, five are threatened or endangered. The smallest member of the horse family, the African wild ass stands about 4.5 feet (1.5 meters) tall at the shoulders and weighs about 550 to 600 pounds (250 to 275 kilograms). It has a gray coat with a white belly and a dark stripe up its back. With its long ears and short stubby mane, the African wild ass looks like its cousin, the American domestic donkey, and is in fact the donkey's ancestor. The African ass has strong teeth and sturdy narrow hooves. It eats the tough grasses and shrubs of the desert. Although its teeth wear down from grazing, they continue to grow throughout the life of the animal.

The African wild ass is most active in the cooler temperatures at dawn, night, and dusk, and takes refuge from the heat during the daytime. Well adapted to the desert, the African ass can go longer without water than any other species of horse. It is also a very skilled runner, and has been seen running at a rate of 31 miles (50 kilometers) per hour.

African wild ass sometimes live alone, but they often join temporary groups. Females generally live with their offspring in herds of about 50 animals. Some males live in their own territory and defend their water sources. They will allow other males and females into their territory, but they remain dominant in it. If a male does not have its own territory, it will usually travel with a small bachelor herd. African wild ass form small herds because the food in the regions in which they live is so scarce it could not support a large number. They communicate with each other through scent and by making vocal calls. The African wild ass mates during the rainy seasons. There is a one-year gestation (pregnancy) period, and females generally bear one offspring at a time. The female African wild ass usually gives birth only every other year, although capable of breeding annually. African wild ass in the wild can live up to about 30 or 40 years.

Habitat and current distribution

The African wild ass lives in desert regions, in hilly and stony areas where grasses and shrubs grow. It avoids sandy regions and needs to be near a water source. In the early 2000s, the surviving members of the species were found mainly in the Horn of Africa (the easternmost projection of the continent), in isolated areas within Ethiopia, the western part of Djibouti, and northern Somalia. It was estimated that there were only a few hundred animals remaining.

History and conservation measures

Humans have captured and domesticated, or tamed, the African wild ass to use for work and transportation in parts of Africa since 3000 B.C. The species was widespread throughout the Horn of Africa for many years. It has been estimated that in 1905 the population of African wild ass in eastern Somalia alone was 10,000 animals. By the 1960s, however, there were only a few hundred survivors in the world.

There are several causes for the decline in the African wild ass population. In Ethiopia and Somalia, the wild ass has been hunted for domestication, for food, and for traditional medicine, as it is believed by some to cure hepatitis. The introduction of modern firearms in the area led to the slaughter of more animals. In the latter part of the twentieth century, warfare and instability in the Horn of Africa led to more (and more deadly) weapons and ammunition being available, and this too led to a reduction in the wild ass population. Animal herders have at times killed wild ass in the belief that the animals were using up grasses and water resources that their domesticated animals needed to survive.

Several conservation projects address the plight of the African wild ass. One of the goals of these programs is to build up the population from a few hundred to 2,500 animals in the wild. More scientific data about the animal is being pursued in the early 2000s. There have been attempts to establish populations of African wild ass in new surroundings, notably in the desert at Hai-Bar, Israel. So far these attempts have not succeeded. African wild ass are legally protected in Sudan, Somalia, and Ethiopia. Conservationists are educating some of the people living in these areas about methods of protecting their resources, including programs to save the African wild ass.