The birth of a Persian onager at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Va., Wednesday, Sept. 7, is a boon for a vital program that seeks innovative ways to manage endangered species that live in herds. The foal is now one of 26 onagers in captivity in North America. The last time SCBI-Front Royal bred onagers and produced a foal was in 1995.
The onager is an ass and a member of the Equidae (horse) family, though it more closely resembles a donkey in appearance. There are approximately 600 onagers remaining in two protected areas in Iran, where the population is severely threatened by loss of desert habitat, poaching and competition with domestic livestock.
This foal appears to be female, strong and healthy. In the wild, foals have a 50 percent mortality rate, but under human care their mortality rate is lower—24 percent for females and 38 percent for males. An onager foal was also born at SCBI-Front Royal in 2008 to a female who had arrived at the facility pregnant.
Because there are so few onagers under human care, SCBI is collaborating with the Wilds, a 1,000-acre conservation center in Ohio, to establish a healthy population to hedge against extinction.