Rare Persian Onagers Born at "The Wilds" with Help of Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute

Four years of work by a team of scientists, veterinarians, animal care specialists and interns from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Va., and ”The Wilds” in Cumberland, Ohio, have culminated in the birth of two rare Persian onagers (on-uh-ger). The foals, born at The Wilds June 28 and July 9, are the first wild equids of any species to be born using artificial insemination. One foal was produced using semen that had previously been frozen, another scientific “first.”

The endangered Persian onager (Equus hemionus onager) is an Asiatic wild ass and a member of the Equidae (horse) family. There are approximately 600-700 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.

Although both foals were born at The Wilds, SCBI lent essential expertise to make the project a success. While a postdoctoral fellow at SCBI and The Wilds, project leader Mandi Vick worked with SCBI scientists to develop techniques for semen collection in equids and sperm cryopreservation (freezing) and storage. Vick and other SCBI researchers also used non-invasive hormone-monitoring techniques to learn about the normal reproductive biology of onagers and determine the most effective time to perform an artificial insemination.

“These births represent a critical development in the area of endangered equid reproduction,” said Budhan Pukazhenthi, a reproduction physiologist at SCBI. “We are confident that these advances will benefit the long-term management of equids in zoos and in the wild. Researchers at SCBI focus on understanding the fundamental biology of endangered species and use this information to develop reproductive technologies for enhanced genetic management and species conservation.”

The team had the tools and information needed to attempt the artificial inseminations by the third year of the onager study. In July and August 2009, three females were inseminated with sperm collected from different males all living at The Wilds, which has specialized animal facilities. The births occurred after gestation periods of 347 and 325 days.

“It is amazing when you take a step back and realize all of the hard work, enthusiasm and expertise that go into understanding the uniqueness of how each species reproduces and how scientific technologies can be applied to ensure sustainable populations,” said Vick, now associate curator of research at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. “This work demonstrates the power of science for improving our ability to manage and conserve not only Persian onagers but also other species of endangered equids.”

There are fewer than 30 onagers maintained in zoological institutions in North America—including five Persian onagers at SCBI—and less than 100 in institutions worldwide. But the current population is not self-sustaining. There is a need to establish a healthy population of onagers as a hedge against extinction and, eventually, perhaps a resource for future reintroduction.

This work is part of The Wilds’and SCBI’scollaboration with the Conservation Centers for Species Survival (C2S2), a group of large conservation facilities in North America dedicated to cooperative breeding and research for the advancement of species conservation. Established in 2005, C2S2 applies its unique resources for the survival of species with special needs, especially those requiring large living areas, natural group sizes, minimal public disturbance and scientific research. The Wilds and SCBI are founding members of C2S2, along with Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, White Oak Conservation Center and San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park.