August 21, 2008


Somali wild ass filly Matara with mother Liberty. © Saint Louis Zoo

The arrival of three Somali wild ass foals at a United States zoo is a major boost for the critically endangered breed.

The two females and a male were born at the Saint Louis Zoo in Missouri this northern spring and summer. The births are a first for the Saint Louis Zoo and a first for each mother.

The Somali wild ass is a critically endangered wild member of the horse family, found in small numbers in desert areas of Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia.

Probably fewer than 1000 exist in northeastern Africa.

There are currently only 27 Somali wild asses in North America, with seven at the Saint Louis Zoo. Only one other zoo in North America has bred this species.

A female named Wane (pronounced WAH-nay) was born to four-year-old Fataki on April 10, 2008 weighing 56.6 pounds at birth. Matara, another female, was born to four-year-old Liberty on June 2, 2008 and weighed 48.5 pounds. A male, named Hakim, was born to four-year-old Tukia on July 28, 2008 and weighed 51 pounds.

The youngsters have the beautiful markings of their mothers - gray body, white belly and horizontal black stripes on their legs, similar to zebras.

Fataki, Liberty and Tukia, arrived at the Saint Louis Zoo in 2005. They were born at the San Diego Wild Animal Park in 2004. Their mate, five-year-old Abai, was born at the Basel Zoo in Germany in 2003.


Matara enjoys a gallop ...


then takes a rest. © Dave Merrit

The zoo's research department and Washington University are currently collaborating on a behaviour project that involves both the Somali wild asses and their cousins from Kenya and Ethiopia, the endangered Grevy's zebras.

The Somali wild ass is the smallest of all wild horses, asses and zebras. It stands about four feet tall at the shoulder and weighs about 600 pounds. It has long, narrow hooves - the narrowest of any wild horse. This unique design allows the animals to be swift and surefooted in their rough, rocky habitat.

They can go without water longer than other wild asses, but they still need to drink at least once every two or three days.

They have large ears, which help them hear and keep cool. They have loud voices to keep in touch over broad expanses of desert.

The Saint Louis Zoo and its WildCare Institute Centre for Conservation in the Horn of Africa has supported field research and conservation programs to study and preserve the rare African wild ass and its arid habitat.

In partnership with other conservation organisations, the zoo has supported programmes in both Ethiopia and Eritrea.


Fataki and her daughter Wane. © Saint Louis Zoo
African wild asses face an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild, for a number of reasons. Some local people have been known to hunt the asses for food and for use in traditional medicine. (Some native people believe the animals' fat is an effective treatment for tuberculosis.)

Hunting has taken a greater toll in recent years, as political unrest in the area has allowed better access to automatic weapons.

Other problems they face are brought about by increasing human populations and the expansion of agriculture. More and more, wild asses are competing with domestic livestock for limited grazing grounds and water sources.

As the wild and domestic animals come into contact, there is more and more interbreeding - another serious threat to wild asses.

The Saint Louis Zoo participates in the American Zoo and Aquarium Association's (AZA) co-operative breeding programme for the Somali wild ass. The zoo is one of four North American zoos who participate; the San Diego Wild Animal Park, White Oak Conservation Centre and the Oklahoma City Zoo are the other partners.