Colours of Wildlife: African Wild Ass

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African Wild Ass

Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

African Wild Ass by Willem

A horsey for you this time! This is an African Wild Ass, Equus africanus. (This is again a tiny watercolour painting, measuring 12 cm x 15.5 cm/about 5 x 6 inches.) This species is likely the wild ancestor of the domestic donkey. Here in the rural regions there are still many donkeys that look very, very similar. But wild donkeys today only remain in a small region of Africa, around where the countries of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia come together. There are said to be two 'races', the Nubian Wild Ass and the Somali Wild Ass. The Nubian is said to be closer to the appearance of the domestic donkey, having a bold black shoulder stripe, but no stripes on the legs, while the Somali is said to have striped legs, but no shoulder stripe. But in the wild there are intermediate types and there may not be a clear distinction between these races. But the issue might be clouded by some degree of hybridisation going on between wild asses and domestic donkeys. Here you see, for comparison, two more paintings, showing rural donkeys here around Polokwane: the first, showing the pair, by me, and the one showing the single, grazing donkey, by my father.

Wild asses are compact, strong and sturdy members of the horse family. The adult male reaches a shoulder height of 1.25 m/about 4' and a weight of 280 kg/610 lbs. They have long ears with black borders, enabling them to hear each other's loud, braying calls over long distances. They also have narrow hooves, adapted to moving about in hard, rocky terrain. They're very agile and can climb up and down steep slopes. African wild asses live in semi-desert country, with coarse grass, low shrubs, and many succulent species of the genera Aloe and Euphorbia. They can tolerate extreme heat, though they will seek shelter on the hottest days, and can go for three days without drinking water. But they do tend to stay fairly close to water sources. They can also drink brackish water. They're more active in the cooler mornings and afternoons. They often start out high on the slopes and move down to the valleys later on. They feed mainly on grass, but do browse some trees and shrubs. They'll use their tough hooves and teeth to scrape away the dry grass at the tips of desert tussocks to get at the more juicy leaves that remain around the bottom.

These wild horses live in small family groups. Some are just a mother and her offspring, of one or a few years. These groups typically roam small ranges inside a larger range controlled by a dominant stallion. Within his territory, other stallions are allowed, but only he has access to the mares. The dominant stallion proclaims his territory by leaving big piles of dung around the perimeter. When the mares go into oestrus, the stallion parades around braying loudly. Mares start breeding at the age of about four years. After mating, the mare carries her foal for almost an entire year. Once born, the foal is quite independent. It does suckle from its mom for as much as six months, but its mother frequently leaves it alone while she goes to drink water, and it starts grazing on its own starting a few weeks after its birth. If they survive their difficult youth years, wild asses can live to the age of forty.

Donkeys by Willem

Horse History

I've written about this before in my zebra articles but might well mention it again. The horses of the modern world are the last remnants of a group that was hugely diverse and widespread in the past. The horse family has a history going back about fifty million years, and their evolution has mainly happened on the continent of North America. There were many South American horses also. The influx of horses into Europe, Asia and Africa happened quite recently, and the present-day horses – all zebras, all wild asses and horses – all belong to a single genus, Equus. There were a staggering array of other horse genera around until quite recently. Horse evolution started with very small, forest-living critters similar to duikers without horns, and had four or five toes per foot, with small hooves at the tips. From there they increased in size and lost toes until modern horses were left with only a single toe per foot sporting a large, tough hoof. But until recently there were still very successful three-toed horses of the genus Hipparion. These lived in the Americas, in Europe, Asia and Africa. There were also a group of horses that mainly stayed in the forests and ate leaves rather than grass, the Anchitheres. There were even horses that might have had long, prehensile snouts like tapirs. All in all, the horse family was one of the most diverse and abundant of hoofed mammals, until recently. It's not clear why, but the vast majority of horse forms went extinct, and today we're left with a truly tiny remnant: as I've said, just a single genus, and in terms of species, we have, in total: three species of zebra; three species of wild ass; and a single species of wild horse that remains, other than domestic horses. No native wild horses survive in North and South America, and in Europe.

Here in Africa we are currently blessed with the greatest diversity of horse species – three zebras and the wild ass. We also have some feral domestic horses that have been living wild for a long time now in the country of Namibia; in time those might become and be considered a valid 'race' of wild horse. But strangely, horses are relatively new to Africa. They've only been here for around three million years (this is a short period of time, geologically speaking, and compared to the fifty-million-year history of the horse family as a whole). Not even zebras are originally native to Africa. These indeed probably first evolved in North America, from where they spread to Asia and then to Africa, after which they went extinct everywhere but here.

The African wild ass is in a way an intermediate animal, a bit in between a horse and a zebra. But it has some unique features of its own, like its shoulder stripes, its long, pointed ears, and its small, compact shape. Wild asses probably once had a far larger range, taking in much of North Africa, and probably the near and middle East also. The ancestor of the donkey might have come from Egypt, and have been domesticated around 3 000 B. C. From there, they were introduced to Asia, and from there to Europe.

Kissing our Asses Goodbye?

Sad to say, the African Wild Ass is today a seriously endangered species. It lives in a region where there has been much warfare to determine the borders of countries, and war and civil unrest still characterises much of it, especially in Somalia. Wild asses are often hunted for meat. They also suffer diminishment and degradation of their wild habitat; much of it has been taken over by humans herding cattle and goats. Lastly, wild asses are hybridising with domestic donkeys, and this is compromising their genetic integrity. Perhaps the only hope for this species is captive breeding programmes; fortunately these are taking place in a few different zoos today. Let us hope that these wild forebears of our trusty donkey servants can survive and remain wild for some time longer!

A donkey by Willem's father.

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