Wild Zebras, Asses and Horses Disappearing

GLAND, Switzerland, January 28, 2002 (ENS) - There are only seven species of wild horses, zebras and asses remaining in the world, and most or them are endangered mainly due to human activities, says the latest report from experts who serve on the IUCN-World Conservation Union's Equid Specialist Group. They have written a plan of action to recover these increasingly threatened animals.

During the Pleistocene Era, which ended about 10,000 years ago, wild equids were abundant, but the Specialist Group report says they are vanishing from the grasslands and steppes of Africa, Asia, and the Americas.

One of the seven wild species, Przewalski's horse (Equus ferus przewalskii), was last seen in the wild in 1969 - a solitary stallion in the Dzungarian Gobi, Mongolia. Small groups were reported back in the 1940s and 1950s, but their decline occurred rapidly, the reasons cited include hunting, military activities, and increasing land use pressure. The species is now Extinct in the Wild on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and survives due to captive breeding, the group of equid experts reports.

Today, only seven wild equid species remain - African Wild Ass (Equus africanus), Asiatic Wild Ass (Equus hemionus), Kiang (Equus kiang), Grevy's Zebra (Equus grevyi), Mountain Zebra (Equus zebra), Plains Zebra (Equus burchellii), and Przewalski's Horse (Equus ferus przewalskii).

Five of these seven species are listed as Vulnerable, Endangered, or Extinct in the Wild on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. They face the demographic and genetic challenges of managing small populations, the expert group says.

"Equids: Zebras, Asses and Horses. Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan," released by the Equid Specialist Group late last year, is scientific assessment of these wild equids and their ecosystems. For the biology and conservation of the zebras, asses and horses of the world, the IUCN says this publication "represents the new benchmark" for knowledge in the field.

"Most of the endangered equids live in desert and savanna ecosystems," says Dr. Patricia Moehlman, who chairs the Equid Specialist Group. "These habitats are not rich in biodiversity, but do contain unique and endemic animals and plants. Zebras, asses, and horses can serve as flagship species for the conservation of these ecosystems and their biodiversity."

The new Equid Action Plan is the result of many experts working together as part of IUCN's Species Survival Commission to develop programs to study, understand, and manage wisely wild equids and their habitats, says the IUCN., this publication represents the new benchmark of knowledge in the field.

"This new action plan for the conservation of equids is an urgently needed response to the problem of creating effective conservation strategies in equid habitats. Its value has been greatly enhanced because its authors are grounded in the realities of local socio-economic circumstances as well as cognizant of the scientific basis needed for the protection and management of species," writes Dr. Mary Pearl, president of Wildlife Trust.

Humans and wild equids each need the same natural resources, such as water, which are in short supply. "The arid homes of many equids are also home to human populations that face the same extreme environmental pressures. Involving local pastoralists in conservation management is likely to be significant and indeed essential in the maintenance of equid populations," Dr. Moehlman warns.

The mountain zebras (Equus zebra) once ranged from southern parts of South Africa through Namibia and into western Angola. The species is Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species on the basis of a suspected population decline of at least 50 percent in 10 years, or three generations.

Two subspecies of mountain zebras are known (Equus z. zebra, and E. z. hartmannae), and although it has been subjected to hunting excesses and loss of habitat to agriculture in the past, numbers of Equus z. zebra are now being gradually built up through conservation programs.

Threats to mountain zebra survival include the risk of cross-breeding between the two subspecies and the resulting loss of genetic diversity. There is also the ever present drought and water scarcity in the region. The loss of a single mountain zebra population, the specialist group says, "could reduce the world population of mountain zebras by around 30 percent."