ASIATIC WILD ASS
Equus hemionous khur)
Only about 2,000 Wild Asses are now surviving in India.
The Asiatic Wild Ass belongs to the family Equidae, and is a close relation of the Horse and the African Zebra. Within the subcontinent it is found only in the Little Rann of Kutch and probably only became extinct in Baluchistan within past forty years. It has a larger cousin, the Kiang, living on the high plateaus of Ladakh and Tibet. The Asiatic Wild Ass stands about 115 cm at the shoulder, therefore considerably taller than the domestic donkey. The male is larger and sturdier than the female. They live in mixed troops of 10 to 30 animals except for 2 or 3 months after the young are bornWhen the mares accompanied by the foals live apart and the stallions keep singly or in scattered twos and threes. Their typical habitat is the flat salt desert around Dhrangadhra and Jhinjuwada in the Little Rann of Kutch which gets inundated during the monsoon, leaving exposed little ‘islands’ or bets of slightly raised ground supporting scanty grasses which comprise the principal food of this animal. The Wild Ass is fleet of foot, being capable of attaining a maximum speed of 50 kmph over a considerable distance.
The Rann of Kutch, Gujarat is the only habitat for this endangered sub-species of the Asiatic wild ass (Equus hemionus khur) and most of the population survives in the Wild Ass Sanctuary in Little Rann of Kutch.They are chestnut brown and white in colour with a dark stripe, made up of dark brown mane which runs along the animal’s back ending with its tufted tail. The area is a saline desert with extremely sparse cover of vegetation. In the past, the habitat supported a thriving population of wild asses. However, due to extensive changes in the land-use around the Rann of Kutch, there has been an increase in the conflict of interests between man and the wild ass. Epidemics of surra and South African Horse Sickness also considerably decimated their population in 1950s. Their total population had dropped to less than 1,000 animals in 1962.
The Wild ass is an endangered mammal, and is classified as such by the World Conservation Union (IUCN). The current official population of this mammal is about 2000. This population is confined mostly to the Little Rann of Kutch, a unique salt desert-wetland ecosystem which also contains several other rare species.
Though a large area of 4900 sq. km. of the Little Rann of Kutch had been declared a wildlife sanctuary, the study by researchers from the Wildlife Institute found that the Wild ass mostly uses the fringes of the vast desert area, including the fallow and wasteland which abounds in the adjacent villages. This is precisely the habitat where Sardar Sarovar Narmada Project (SSP) irrigation canals proposed to extend around the last habitat of the Wild Ass, will cause drastic land use and vegetational changes, including conversion into permanent cultivation, replacement of native vegetation which is favoured by the Wild ass into unpalatable weed, and waterlogging/salinisation. In addition, the existing Wild ass movement between the Little Rann of Kutch and the Great Rann (to its north), where a small population of the species exists, will be cut off, “causing genetic isolation”. All these factors, says the study, “would have dire consequences for the long-term survival of the species”.
The other main threat faced by the sanctuary is the illegal salt mining activity in the area. 25% of India’s salt supply comes from mining in the area. The transportation of salt leads to noise and air pollution. Another major threat to the animals is due to the 217 km² firing range of the Indian army located within the sanctuary. Other threats faced by the sanctuary are poaching and proliferation of chemical factories in the region.