Let’s talk about zebras, asses and horses

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Plains zebra numbers have declined by 25% over the past 10 years and there is relatively little research being conducted on equid species.

The second International Wild Equid Conference is being held in Prague, Czech Republic from the 1 to 5 September 2019. Equine experts are gathering from around the world to discuss new research and the future conservation of zebras and wild asses, and management of feral horses and donkeys.

An equid is a mammal in the horse family and includes wild and domestic horses, zebras, donkeys, wild asses, and the kiang.

“The aim of the conference is to share scientific research, new technologies and tools for conservation and management of wild equids,” says Dr Sarah King, co-chair of the IUCN/SSC Equid Specialist Group and one of the organisers of the conference. “It also creates an opportunity for international networking.”

zebra symmetry

Researchers from around the world will be presenting their research. Some of the key speakers are Dr Morris Gosling who has been instrumental in studying the Hartmann’s mountain zebra, DrWayne Linklater who is writing a book about the Kaimanawa wild horses in New Zealand, and Dr Albano Beja-Pereira an expert on the genetics of both the African and Asiatic wild ass.

“I am particularly interested to see presentations about the domestication process of equids and the research being conducted on the hybridization between species,” says King.

A lack of researchers and research funding for equids 

“There are relatively few equid researchers in the world, so it is a nice opportunity for us to come together to share knowledge,” says King. “There is always a lack of research funding when it comes to equids.”

For such a well-known animal there has been surprisingly little research on zebras. There are some important questions that still need to be answered such as why plains zebra populations are declining,” says King. “We also need more information on plains zebra populations across the continent.” Plains zebras are known to have one of the longest migrations in the world. Researchers are not yet sure of the impact fences are having on these migration routes and the knock-on effect of this is having on plain’s zebra populations.

King says they also need to understand more about the kiang in Tibet, the largest of the wild asses. An increase in funding would also aid the preservation of endangered equids such as the African wild ass (Equus africanus), Grevy’s zebra (Equus grevyi) and the Przewalski’s horse (Equus ferus przewalskii) from Mongolia.

Why do we care about equids?

Although not fully understood, equids like zebra offer important ecological services.

Asiatic wild asses and feral donkeys are known to dig holes in dry river beds, providing water for other species. Equids also select vegetation differently to ruminants like antelope and wildebeest, maintaining a diverse habitat. Equids are able to eat shorter grass and a wide variety of it to meet their nutritional needs.

 

The world’s most endangered equid

The most endangered equid in the world is the African wild ass. It is listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List and it is estimated that there are only 600 individuals left in the Horn of Africa.

“Because there are so few in the wild and in zoos, the African wild ass is at greater risk of extinction than tigers or pandas,” says King.

wild african ass

Photo: cuatrok77

Threats to Africa’s zebras

“The main threats to zebras are habitat degradation, largely due to competition for space and grazing with livestock,” says King. “Equids are also strongly affected by livestock monopolizing water sources, preventing them from drinking.”

All the species experience some hunting for meat or skins, and are at risk from diseases that they can contract from livestock, such as anthrax.

Mountain zebras

hartmanns mountain zebra

While fences are inhibiting the migration routes of plains, fenced reserves have helped protect the mountain zebra species. “In South Africa, the Cape mountain zebra (Equus zebra zebra) have recovered from near extinction due to fenced reserves,” says King. Without implementation of a proper population management plan or breeding programme for the metapopulation of Cape mountain zebra, the population may lose its genetic diversity.

“The Hartmann’s mountain zebra (Equus zebra hartmannae) in Namibia are currently increasing, but their numbers, and those of other equid species, are likely to drop rapidly in the event of a catastrophic drought,” explains King.

If you are interested in attending the Second International Wild Equid Conference, click here.

Written by Georgina Lockwood 

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