The African wild ass (Equus africanus) is the ancestor of the domestic donkey (4), and has a similar stocky body shape. The short, smooth coat is a light grey to fawn colour, fading to white on the undersides and legs (2). Both subspecies have a dark stripe across their back and the Somali wild ass (E.a.somalicus) also has horizontally striped legs like those of a zebra (2). The ears are large and bordered by black whilst the thick, upright mane is also black at the tip (2).
African wild asses have a fluid social arrangement and often form temporary aggregations of one or both sexes, which last no more than a few months and can contain as many as 50 individuals (4). Mature males however, tend to occupy large territories that are often situated around a water supply; these allow them to attain access to any receptive females passing through the area (5). Other males form bachelor groups and females may group with other females or with their own offspring. Mares tend to produce one foal every two years and births occur during the wet season (4).
Active in the cool of dawn and dusk, African wild asses seek shade in the heat of the day and are able to survive without water for a few days at a time (2). These grazers eat a variety of grasses and herbs, and in captivity have been known to live for 40 years (4).
Previously found across northern Africa, from the Atlas Mountains of Morocco to Sudan and Somalia (4). Today, the African wild ass is restricted to scattered populations in Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia and is regionally extinct in Egypt and Sudan (1).
The African wild ass is classified as Critically Endangered (CR) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix I of CITES (3). Subspecies: Nubian wild ass (E. a. africanus) and the Somali wild ass (E. a. somalicus) are both classified as Critically Endangered (CR) on the IUCN Red List (1).
African wild asses have been captured for domestication for centuries and this, together with interbreeding between wild and domestic animals, has caused a distinct decline in population numbers (4). There are now only a few hundred individuals left in the wild (4) and the species is under threat of extinction. These animals are hunted for food and for traditional medicine in both Ethiopia and Somalia, where recent civil unrest has led to an increased number of weapons in circulation. Competition with domestic livestock for grazing, and restricted access to water supplies caused by agricultural developments, pose further threats to the survival of this species (4).
The African wild ass is legally protected in the countries within which it is currently found (4), although these measures often prove difficult to enforce. More effective protection measures need to be adopted if the status of this species is to improve. A protected population of the Somali wild ass exists in the Yotvata Hai-Bar (Wildlife Preserve) Nature Reserve in Israel, to the north of Elat (6). This reserve was established in 1968 with the view to bolster populations of endangered desert species (7). Populations of horses and asses are fairly resilient, and if the species is properly protected it may well recover from its current low (5).
To learn more about a Whitley Award-winning conservation project for this species, click here.
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