Increasing Population Size and Range of Threatened Wild Ass in India

Asiatic wild ass

Increasing Population Size and Range of Threatened Wild Ass in India 

-Dr. Arvind Singh

Indian wild ass is scientifically known as Equus hemionus khuris a handsome beast (locally called Ghodkhad or Ghorkhar) mostly concentrated in Little Rann of Kutch in the Gujarat state of India. It is also called as Khur is one of the subspecies of the onager native to South Asia. Indian wild ass is one of the fastest animals in the world which can run with a speed of 50 km/hour. This population of wild ass is the only gene pool of Indian wild asses in the entire world and one of the six geographical varieties or subspecies surviving the planet.

To conserve the wild ass, an area of about 4,954 square kilometers in Little Rann its fringe areas and some Bets (upland or island) in Great Rann of Kutch were declared as the Wild Ass Sanctuary in 1973. Recognizing its ecological significance the Little Rann of Kutch has been declared as Biosphere Reserve by the Government of India.

Due to the drastic reduction in population between 1960 and 1969 the Indian wild ass was included in Red Data Book as per International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Threat Criteria. The 1996 Red List of Threatened Animals had listed this subspecies as ‘Endangered’ according to its predicted population decline due to change in its area and occupancy, extent of occurrence and change in habitat quality. The Indian wild ass has been given total protection under the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972.

Distribution Range:

The range of Indian wild ass was once extended from Western India, Sindh and Baluchistan of Southern Pakistan, Afghanistan, and South-Eastern Iran. However, today the Indian wild ass is restricted to the saline desert(rann), grasslands in the arid zone and the shrublands of Western India. The animal is mainly found in the Little Rann of Kutch and its surrounding areas in the state of Gujarat. Indian wild ass has also been spotted in Banaskantha, Mehsana, Surendra Nagar, Patan and Rajkot Districts of Gujarat.

Physical Characteristics:

The Indian wild ass looks more like a mule. The skin tone is usually sandy in color but it may vary from reddish grey to pale chestnut. The mane is dark and straight and it goes from the back of the head to the neck area. From the mane, there is a dark brown stripe, which moves along the back of the animal to the tip of its tail. The Indian wild ass may attain a length of 260 cm and a shoulder height of 120 cm. The tail is covered with brownish yellow hair, and the average tail length is 80 cm. The body weight of the Indian wild ass is about 250 kg. The male is larger and sturdier than the female. The life span of the Indian wild ass is 20-25 years.

Habitat and Ecology:

The habitat of the Indian wild ass is the flat salt desert around Dhrangadhra and Jhinjuwada in the Little Rann of Kutch.

Wild asses graze between dawn and dusk. Grasses comprise the principal food of this animal. Besides grasses, they feed pods of Prosopis cineraria(Khejari). Indian wild asses also raid wheat and paddy cultivation along the edge of the Rann during the night and do considerable damage by browsing on the ripening ears of the crops.

Males called as stallions live either solitarily, or in small groups of twos and threes while family herds remain larger. Mating takes place in the rainy season which is also a period of vegetation growth. During rainy season-best nutrition is available, when females are lactating. This is also a crucial time for the mares (females) as they have to overcome the stress and high energy cost of lactation.
When a mare comes into heat she separates from the herd with a stallion (male) those battles against rivals for her possession. After a few days, the pair returns to the herd. The gestation period is for nearly 11 months. The mare gives birth to one foal. The male foal weans at 1-2 years of age while the female foal continues to remain with mares for a longer period.

Threats to Survival:

Habitat degradation, salt preparation, and transportation activities and firing practice by the Indian Army are the main threats to the survival of Indian wild ass. The native vegetation of herbaceous habit and the sparse thorn forest of indigenous species have now been replaced by an exotic invading shrub Prosopis juliflora causing reduced availability of food to this animal. Encroachment and grazing by the Maldharihas also been a threat to Indian wild ass in Gujarat. Maldharis are nomadic tribal herdsmen who live in the Gujarat state of India.

Increase in Population Size and Range:

In 1946 the estimated population of wild ass in Little Rann in India ranged from 3,000 to 4,000 individuals. However, in 1960 the population reduced to about 2,000 individuals. In 1958 and 1960, an arthropod-borne protozoic disease known as ‘Surra’ caused by Trypanosoma evansi had led to large scale mortality of wild asses. In 1961 some wild asses died owing to the outbreak of a viral disease known as ‘South African horse sickness’ reducing the population to 870 individuals in 1962. 

By an aerial survey, Forest Department recorded 362 wild asses in 1969. Since then the Gujarat Forest Department has conducted several censuses and found that the population has increased consistently from 720 in April 1976 to 1,989 in April 1983, 2,072 in March 1990 and 2,839 in January 1999. By the year 2004, the population of wild asses increased to around 3,863 individuals. In 2009 the population has increased to 4,038 individuals which is far beyond the recommended numbers (above 2,500) suggested in the IUCN Action plan.

The increasing population size of wild asses had led to their movement from Little Rann of Kutch to Great Rann of Kutch extending into the neighboring state of Rajasthan in the bordering villages in Jalore District bordering the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat. In Rajasthan, the wild asses have started making their presence in Khejari Ali and its neighborhood where an area of 60 square kilometers was transferred to the Rajasthan Forest Department by the revenue authorities in 2007. At this place, the camel sheep breeders Rebaris live in the Prosopis forest.


The conservationist in India may feel a sigh of relief as the population of threatened wild ass has been increasing consistently without any declining trend after the declaration of Little Rann of Kutch and its adjoining areas as Wild Ass Sanctuary in 1973. Since rise in population may pose a threat to agricultural production in the region, hence individuals can be considered for capture to enhance the captive population in Indian zoos. Simultaneously efforts should also be made to adjust the additional population to some other sites (for instance, Thar Desert) as a part of long term conservation strategy.
Dr. Arvind Singh is M. Sc. and Ph. D. in Botany with area of specialization in Ecology. He is an dedicated Researcher having more than four dozen of published Research Papers in the Journals of National and International repute. His main area of Research is Restoration of Mined Lands. However, he has also conducted Research on the Vascular Flora of Banaras Hindu University Main Campus, India.

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