Dance of the Somali wild asses

It looks just like a wild dance when Somali wild ass stallion Gigolo (3) and mare Yogala 914) rollick about the enclosure. What drives these two to such unusual behaviour we can but guess.

Gigolo came to Basel Zoo on 15th November. The young stallion’s role was to produce offspring of this rare species. The impetuous youth immediately went down well with all the female wild asses – but Yogala is his favourite partner for this playful ‘dance’. It is possible that the youthful stallion was initially somewhat intimidated by the experienced mare’s demanding behaviour. As soon as she was in heat she invited Gigolo to mate with her in unambiguous terms and did not relent when he tried to escape her pushy behaviour. Over time, this initial toing and froing developed into a wild game that the two asses perform whenever Yogala is in heat.

The pair’s behaviour is unusual, and actions of this type have previously only been observed in foals at Basel Zoo. For Somali wild ass pairs, on the other hand, usual behaviour takes the shape of a hunt – the stallion pursues the mares across the enclosure until they are ready to mate. Gigolo exhibited this behaviour upon first meeting the mares and there are realistic hopes that Gigolo will soon produce offspring at Basel Zoo. The impetuous stallion first caused a stir shortly after his arrival, when on visiting his outdoor enclosure an all-out sprint landed him in the water ditch.

Basel Zoo has kept Somali wild asses since 1970. Only 200 examples of this species of wild ass live in zoos worldwide. In the wild they are threatened with extinction and represent one of the rarest mammals on the planet. Only a few hundred animals remain in Ethiopia, together with Eritrea and possibly still in Somalia. Wars, competition with inhabitants’ livestock and meagre food and water reserves have had a catastrophic effect on their numbers in recent years. This makes the efforts of zoos to conserve this rare mammal species through targeted breeding – what’s known as the EEP, or the European Endangered species Programme – all the more important.