Two new Somali wild asses are settling into their new home at the Little Rock Zoo in Arkansas in the USA.
Native to the horn of Africa, the critically endangered wild asses differ from horses and zebras in their smaller size, larger ears, tufted tail, stiff mane, and characteristic loud bray.
To be listed as critically endangered, the probability of extinction in the wild is at least 50 percent within 10 years or three generations, whichever is the longer. Zoo Director Mike Blakely said the two male Somali asses from St Louis Zoo are a part of the Species Survival Plan which makes breeding recommendations and helps participating zoos find mates for threatened species.
“We hope to get a breeding recommendation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. If we do, one of the males will be moved and we hope to acquire a couple of females and one day have foals that will help keep the species from extinction,” Blakely said.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature estimates there to be fewer than 2500 Somali wild asses left in their native habitats. As at 2011, there were about 200 individuals in captivity in 34 zoos around the world. The international studbook is managed by Tierpark Berlin.
While quite different from other members of the horse family, zoo visitors will notice similarities that hint at their family connection to zebras. Wild asses have bristly upright manes and their pale legs have the zebra’s characteristic black-and-white stripes. The stripes make for a stunning contrast to a soft gray upper body that looks purplish in the right light, a white belly and spiky black-and-gray mane.
“Not only do these animals compete with people and livestock for food and water sources; they are also hunted for food, skins, and used in traditional medicines,” Blakely said.
“Complicating the problem is that humans often leave their female domesticated donkeys out at night to freely interbreed with the wild asses, hoping to strengthen the stock of their herds. This further threatens the species.”
The leading zoo for breeding the rare ass is Zoo Basel in Switzerland. Its breeding programme manages the European studbook for the Somali wild ass and coordinates the European Endangered Species Programme (EEP) , as well as the global species committee of the Somali Wild Ass since 2004.