Conservation projects

Modern zoos’ journey into the future goes far beyond the scope of zoos today and the global zoo and aquarium conservation strategy plays an important role on this path. Zoos and conservation organizations across the world joined forces in the global zoo and aquarium conservation strategy years ago. The stated aim of all participants is to play their part in protecting and preserving global natural habitats, along with the plants and animals that live in them, that still exist today. The strategy involves more than just paying lip service and it places obligations on the participants. Many of the objectives, achievements and standards formulated by the strategy are already part of the traditions that have been fostered at Basel zoological gardens for many years. For example, the Etoscha, Gamgoas and Australis enclosures bring biological and ecological backgrounds to life for the purpose of the strategy. Nature’s food chain is presented in the Etoscha house and the Gamgoas house is characterized by the conflict-ridden relationship between human beings and nature. Australis gives an insight into the unique world of animal reproduction on the Australian continent. The opening mentioned also includes Basel Zoo’s financial investments in scientific projects.

Somali Wild Ass Research Project in Eritrea

The Somali wild ass is one of the most greatly endangered equidae. Its numbers have fallen by more than 90% in the past 20 years and it is now only found in Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia.

In Eritrea, wild asses live in the Asa’ila Mountains between the Buri Peninsula and the Dalool Depression. 47 wild asses could be individually identified there. Their density in this area is estimated to be 47 wild asses per 100km2. This is the highest density in the present distribution area and it corresponds to the density in Ethiopia in the 1970s. On the Messir Plateau is it possible to get within 100m of the asses and observe their behaviour.

The project provides the scientific information needed to study the biology of the wild asses and the demands that they place on their habitat, as well as to protect them. The results of the project will be used to compile a management plan and provisions for safeguarding the various parts of the area will be drawn up. The aims of the management plan are preservation of the ecosystem, protection of the wild asses and long-term safeguarding of natural resources for the local population. The results achieved shall be made available to the local population, scientists, politicians and the agricultural office. A further objective of the research is to determine the genetic variability of the population in comparison to populations in Ethiopia. At the same time, investigations will determine whether interbreeding between wild and domesticated asses has occurred.

Project status
Somali wild asses live in loose herds of usually fewer than 5 animals and the only stable social unit is formed by a mother and her young. The loose herds vary with regard to age structure and gender of members. There are groups of adults of the same gender, but also mixed groups with mares and stallions of all ages. Stallions usually live alone, but sometimes with other stallions. Females are polyoestrous and foals are born between October and February.  Mares live with their foal and/or yearling. Male foals in the investigation area were not seen as adults later on, which indicates that they move on to other areas and also means that inbreeding is unlikely. Some adult stallions are territorial and only territorial stallions were observed mating with mares. The social system of the Somali wild ass on the Messir Plateau is typical of equidae in desert habitats.

Rainfall varies greatly from year to year and the rate of reproduction in wild asses is highly dependent on the amount of rain. There can be high levels of precipitation on the Messir Plateau, so this area is critical for the reproduction of the wild ass.  However, population dynamics and long-term viability are influenced by the high variability of the sporadic rainfall. During periods of drought, the asses must cover long distances to find enough food and water.
Observations of behaviour have revealed that the presence of domestic asses in the Messir Plateau is problematic. Domesticated stallions have already been seen near wild ass stallions, but no mating has been recorded so far.

5 mitochondrial DNA haplotypes have been determined from dung samples taken from asses in Eritrea and Ethiopia. The results show that crossing over of genes between the populations in the two countries is taking place or took place, probably in the Dalool Depression. In the future, researchers in Eritrea and Ethiopia will have to work together to record the movements of the wild asses in the border area between the two countries. Analyses of mitochondrial DNA indicate possible crossing between wild asses and domesticated asses or feral asses. This is therefore a serious risk that has to be investigated more closely.

Training professional ecologists is an important part of the project. Furthermore, the project also made important scientific journals and books available to the University of Asmara. Posters about protecting wild asses have been produced in various languages and given to all primary schools, authorities, the military, radio stations and the local population.

The local Afar People must be involved in protecting the wild asses. It is thanks to their traditional beliefs and actions that there are still so many important wild animals in Eritrea. Their advice and their priorities will be taken into consideration in the development of a management plan for the Denkelia ecosystem.


In the future, a management plan for the Denkelia region will continue to be developed in cooperation with the wildlife protection unit of the ministry for agriculture on the one hand and the local population on the other.
This plan aims to preserve the integrity of the ecosystem, protect threatened species, ensure the sustainable use of natural resources and protect the food requirements of the native population in the long-term.

As political relationships between Eritrea and Ethiopia improve, a cross-border programme for wild asses must be established (the latest genetic research reveals that wild asses in both countries belong to one population), because long-term protection of this species depends on improving the demographic and genetic viability of the populations in all of the countries where wild asses are still found.

Relationships between native people, their livestock, wild animals and the ecosystem in wider geographical areas must also be investigated so that competition can be counteracted when their numbers increase.

The investigation area shall be expanded so that it also includes the Airori Plains and the Dalool Depression. The latest counts reveal that Somali wild asses are present in these areas.

A further important objective is to define a core zone within the biodiversity conservation area of the Buri Peninsula, ensuring that Somali wild asses can continue to reproduce on the Messir Plateau without the risk of interbreeding with domestic asses. Furthermore, keeping livestock in the core zone would not be permitted so that the wild asses could make use of the sparse desert vegetation without competition. A core zone like this would optimise the reproduction and survival rate of the Somali wild ass.



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