The Indian Wild Ass: A Conservation Success Story

Wild Ass, Gujarat
Image: Rohitcadz/ Creative Commons
The Indian Wild Ass signifies a successful conservation story. Why are the words Ghada and ass still used as insults?

Akhilesh Yadav has learned, through the hard route of electoral defeat, the cost of calling his opponent an ass.

Speaking at a rally in February, he referred to a Gujarat Tourism ad narrated by Amitabh Bacchan – a promo for the state’s Wild Ass sanctuary. He said:

Ek gadhe ka vigyapan aata hai. Main iss sadi ke sabse bade mahanayak se kahunga ke ab aap Gujarat ke gadhon ka prachar mat kariye” (There’s an ad on TV, which shows the wild ass. I appeal to century’s biggest star, please stop endorsing the ass of Gujarat).

It was a textbook case of missing the point. The ad in question is below:

The ad has the wizened superstar making a point against treating the word for ass as an insult. “Rather, take it as a compliment”, he says before going into the many qualities of the handsome Indian Wild Ass. By the end of the advert, Amitabh’s baritone would have removed whatever negative connotations the many words for ass might have held.

Of course, in politics, one does not let a good opportunity slip. The former Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, rejoined – stating that he found inspiration from the ass and its hard-working nature. He praised the donkey’s loyalty and resilience.

It works even if it is ill, hungry or tired and completes the work…Akhileshji these 125 crore countrymen are my masters…I do all the work they ask me to do as I take inspiration from an ass and take it with full pride.

One could well wonder if the Wild Ass enjoyed watching the political carnage from the relative safety of its sanctuary. Because the Wild Ass (also known as the Indian Khur) is one of the few success stories of conservation in India. And unlike Akhilesh Yadav, who lost the subsequent election, the future looks bright for the Gujarati ass.

A wild asset

Ghadde, Ghadkar, Ass, donkey – all human names for a startlingly efficient animal. The Indian Wild Ass is a hardy creature of the salt flats, who once ranged from Eastern Iran to Western India. Its species, the Onager, also known as the Asiatic Wild Ass, currently has populations in India, Pakistan, Iran, Israel, Tibet, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Saudi Arabia.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists it as Endangered – with the third largest population being in Western India.

It’s not known what made their numbers die out – although a sixteenth-century painting that depicts the Mughal emperor Akbar hunting the ass is a clue that hunting might have been involved. Nevertheless, even in the painting, Akbar is shown to be in a trance rather than actually hunting the Khur.

The Khur was no easy target. It’s fast – capable of reaching speeds up to 70 kilometres per hour – a quick pace even for a jeep. Its species (Onager) have proven adept at handling the extremes of weather, from the mountain chill to the searing heat of the Rann of Kutch (where temperatures can reach 50 degrees Celsius).

At one point in time, they used to socialize in the thousands. Over the years, degradation of habitat, hunting and poaching have reduced their numbers dramatically. Worse, in 1958-1960, an insect-borne disease infected the population in the Little Rann of Kutch. The very next year, they were struck by the African Horse Sickness. By 1962, they numbered only around 870 in the area (from 3500 in 1956).

1972 was an important year. The Wildlife (Protection) Act was passed – the first piece of legislation to crack down on poaching and allow for the setting up of protected areas. The same year, Gujarat’s Wild Ass Sanctuary was started – in the midst of an endless sea of scorching hot salt. 4954 square kilometres in the Rann of Kutch were allocated to the Wild Ass.

Once poachers started to feel the heat, the Khur’s chances improved. The Sanctuary became a hot tourist destination, bringing in around 15,000 tourists since 2016. Amitabh Bacchan’s ad and the increased interest in the Wild Ass generated by Akhilesh’s comment have both played a role.

Today, salt miners are its greatest threat. Illegal salt mining (a tradition started by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi – albeit with different intentions) threatens the Khur’s habitat – as the harvest season happens at the same time as the end of the Khur’s gestation cycle. The Indian Army also conducts live firing in the flats – inimical to peaceful coexistence.

Along the salt plains, you can catch a glimpse of this horse-like ass darting across at great speed. Its desert habitat once connected it all the way to Iran – but the national border of Pakistan now stands in the way. On the other side of the border wall lie Pakistan’s own Wild Asses. As various Asian nations nurture their own Asses, conservationists can only hope that more care and cooperation is paid to the noble Wild Ass.

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