Persian onager

Scientific name: Equus hemionus onager
Habitat: semi-desert
Current range: Iran
Conservation status: critically endangered
Threats: poaching and habitat loss
Related research: C2S2’s Wild Equid Conservation Program


Mehgan Murphy, courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution

Truly wild

Though resembling a small donkey with its long ears and stocky body, the Persian onager is a wild, often aggressive equid (horse) that  has successfully resisted domestication attempts since ancient civilization.  The onager is a member of the Asiatic wild asses and has evolved to survive in particularly harsh desert environments.  Historically found in the Steppes and deserts of the Middle East through China and Mongolia, the current range has been drastically reduced to two protected areas in Iran.  Because total onager numbers in this restricted habitat are less than 500 individuals, the species is listed as ‘critically endangered.’  Additional threats include poaching, a general lack of knowledge about the species and the likelihood of minimal movement or interaction among animals.  Thus, there is the potential for inbreeding depression, or reduced reproductive success and survival of offspring due to breeding of closely related individuals.

Conservation in action

Like most wild equids, the onager benefits from the extensive space and pastures of the member institutions of Conservation Centers for Species Survival.  This species has become a priority because there are only 30 onagers in all North American zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).  Without breeding attention, this species soon will no longer exist in security populations, which is of major concern given the limited geographic range of the few remaining wild individuals.  Therefore, the Conservation Centers for Species Survival has been assembling onagers and conducting both research and propagation.  The species is benefiting from C2S2’s extensive experience in equid husbandry, its state-of-the-art barns and chutes and its reproductive science.  For example, scientists have been shared between C2S2 institutions to study the sensitivity of onagers moved from large pastures to small holding yards using noninvasive hormone monitoring.  Furthermore, using a combination of advanced technologies, C2S2 has produced two onager foals by artificial insemination, the first ever accomplishment in a wild equid.

The immediate goal now is to work towards an eventual self-sustaining insurance population of the Persian onager.  Given the few animals remaining in both captivity and the wild, the priority is simply keeping the species alive and reproducing, preferably without losing gene diversity.   Learn more about C2S2’s Wild Equid Conservation Program.

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