Zoo news letterhead

Nov. 7, 2013

Saint Louis Zoo 314/781-0900
Susan Gallagher, 314/646-4633
Christy Childs, 314/646-4639, pr@stlzoo.org
Joanna Bender, 314/646-4703

This beautiful African wild ass is extremely rare in zoos and in the wild

A record five Somali wild ass foals were born between Aug. 19 and Oct. 15 at the Saint Louis Zoo. The births are a first for two of the adult female wild asses.

  • A male named Hirizi (Swahili for charm or amulet) was born to 6-year-old Haiba, a first-time mother who came from Europe (Werner Stamm Foundation) to the Saint Louis Zoo. Hirizi weighed 48 pounds at birth.
  • A female named Farah (which means joy or cheerfulness) was born to 9-year-old Fataki, a female that came from San Diego Zoo Safari Park in 2005. Farah weighed 58 pounds at birth.
  • A female named Luana (which means enjoyment) was born to 4-year-old Luuli, another first-time mother, also from San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Luuli came to the Saint Louis Zoo in 2010. Luana weighed 53 pounds at birth.
  • A male named Tristan (which means clever one) was born to 9-year-old Tukia, another female from San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Tristan weighed 66.5 pounds at birth.
  • A male named Rebel was born to 9-year-old Liberty, a female that came from Zoo Miami in 2012. Rebel weighed 52 pounds at birth.

The father of all five foals is Abai, who came from the Basel Zoo in 2005. Abai has had a total of nine offspring born at the Saint Louis Zoo.

The Somali wild ass is a critically endangered member of the horse family, found in small numbers in desert areas of Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia. Probably less than 1,000 exist in northeastern Africa.

There are currently only 51 Somali wild asses in North America, with 11 at the Saint Louis Zoo. The fact that only three other zoos in North America have bred this species makes these little foals important additions.

Somali Wild Ass, Smallest of Wild Horses

The youngsters have the beautiful markings of their parents – gray body, white belly and horizontal black stripes on their legs, similar to zebras.

The Somali wild ass is the smallest of all wild horses, asses and zebras. It stands about four feet tall at the shoulder and weighs about 600 pounds. It has long, narrow hooves—the narrowest of any wild horse. This unique design allows the animals to be swift and surefooted in their rough, rocky habitat.

They can go without water longer than other wild asses, but they still need to drink at least once every two or three days. They have large ears, which help them hear and keep cool. They have loud voices to keep in touch over broad expanses of desert.

Research on Reproductive Behavior

The Zoo's keepers and researchers have collaborated with Washington University in St. Louis on a social and reproductive behavior project that compares both the Somali wild asses and their cousins from Kenya and Ethiopia, the endangered Grevy's zebras. In addition, Zoo keepers and researchers are collecting data about the asses and taking photos of the herd so field researchers can use this data.

The study began eight years ago, when the animals arrived at the Zoo. There were no published studies about their reproductive behavior or physiology. Even reports from the wild were limited to population surveys and chance sightings. The goal for the research program has been to understand as much about these animals as possible to enhance the chances for successful breeding and to be able to provide the best possible care, as well as to help conservationists studying this species in Africa.

The Zoo's Endocrinology Lab monitors the reproductive status and endocrine effects of social interactions in zebra and Somali wild ass herds. Data from the lab's results, combined with daily behavioral observations, help Zoo staff better understand the behavior of these endangered equids, helping them make decisions about their care. In addition, the Zoo's endocrinology lab played a role in the successful delivery of the five Somali wild asses by diagnosing the pregnancies. Only a handful of zoos across the country have endocrinology laboratories. As a service to the zoo community, the Saint Louis Zoo's Endocrinology lab analyzes samples from animals at zoos across the nation.

Zoo Supports Field Research

The Saint Louis Zoo and its WildCare Institute Center for Conservation in the Horn of Africa has supported field research and conservation programs to study and preserve the rare African wild ass and its arid habitat. In partnership with other conservation organizations, the Zoo has supported programs in both Ethiopia and Eritrea.

African wild asses face an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild, for a number of reasons. Some local people hunt the asses for food and for use in traditional medicine. Hunting has taken a greater toll in recent years, as political unrest in the area has allowed better access to automatic weapons.

Other problems they face are brought about by increasing human populations and the expansion of agriculture. More and more, wild asses are competing with domestic livestock for limited grazing grounds and water sources, and as the wild and domestic animals come into contact, there is more and more interbreeding – another serious threat to wild asses.

The Saint Louis Zoo participates in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) cooperative breeding program for the Somali wild ass. The Zoo is one of seven North American participating institutions; the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, White Oak Conservation Center, Zoo Miami, Denver Zoo, Disney's Animal Kingdom and the Dallas Zoo are the other partners. Tim Their, the Zoological Manager of the Antelope Area at Saint Louis Zoo, serves as the program champion for AZA's North American Regional Studbook and Population Management Program for this species.