Eastern Africa


Semi-desert or desert

Wild horses?

Sleek, graceful, proud, and majestic, wild members of the horse family Equidae (horses, zebras, and wild asses) have long held a strong fascination for humans. All wild asses differ from horses and zebras in their smaller size, larger ears, tufted tail, stiff mane, and characteristic loud bray. Found in some of the most unlivable habitats of Africa and Asia, wild asses are able to eke out a living and thrive where most animals could not. African wild asses are divided into two subspecies: Somali and Nubian wild asses. Until recently, both were found in the wild, but it is possible that only the Somali wild ass remains.

A wild design

All wild asses have bristly upright manes like their zebra relatives. The Somali wild asses have a soft gray body, white belly, spiky black-and-gray mane, and unique black- and-white stripes on their legs that also hint of their family connections! Their short, smooth coat has a purplish hue when the light hits it just right.

The smallest of the equids and the only ass with striped legs, the Somali wild ass has small, narrow hooves that help the animal move quickly and safely through its stony habitat. This small, surefooted design led to the domestication of Nubian and Somali wild asses by the Egyptians more than 6,000 years ago!

A wild ass can lose almost one-third of its body weight in water and still survive.
In the 1500s, the Spanish brought domesticated African wild asses to the southwestern US. These animals' descendants still roam the Southwest—we know them as burros.

Over the years, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park has been one of the best zoo locations for wild asses, and we’ve celebrated many “firsts” in the zoo world with them. Somali wild asses first came to San Diego from the Basel Zoo in Switzerland in 1981; in 1986, a foal was born, the first captive reproduction in the Western Hemisphere. Today, the Safari Park is one of only a few places in the United States that has Somali wild asses, and we have welcomed the births of 43 more foals, including 3 foals born in 2011. We currently hold more than any other zoo in North America.

A habitat featuring the rugged terrain and naturally occurring boulders at the Safari Park was opened for Somali wild asses in 2010. Watch for them during an Africa Tram tour at the Safari Park.

All wild equids—horses, zebras, and wild asses—are threatened; however, the Somali wild ass is critically endangered. Political unrest, encroachment of their land and water sources by domestic herds, poaching, and a general lack of concern for their welfare are all major threats to the wild asses. The animals compete with people and livestock for food and water sources; they are hunted for food, skins, and use in traditional medicines; and they can also freely interbreed with domesticated donkeys, which further threatens the species.

The Somali wild ass is the smallest of all the equids and is at critical risk, with only a few hundred left in the wild. Something as simple as a drought could be enough to wipe out the species completely. Protected by the local government, Somali wild asses are still hunted for meat or for their fat, which is used medicinally and is believed to cure hepatitis. Another problem is hybridization; local people leave their female donkeys beside water holes at night, hoping Somali wild ass stallions will mate with the donkeys to improve the domestic breed. This is a serious threat to the gene pool of the wild species.

The Nubian wild ass may be extinct in the wild already, and there are none in zoos at this time.

San Diego Zoo Global participates in a Species Survival Plan for equids to help keep these species alive and well. Our San Diego Zoo Safari Park is one of only a few breeding facilities in the United States that maintains wild asses and has welcomed the births of numerous Somali wild asses, more than any other zoo in North America. We are working on a project to determine which factors impact reproductive success in this species.

We are also working on a project to document social behavior, activity budgets, nursing behavior, and behavioral development of foals and are working in collaboration with the St. Louis Zoo to examine hormone levels in relation to reproductive success.