Ecology of the onager in Iran: habitat use and population genetics

Herd of onager in Iran
Photo of Herd of onager in Iran 1
Looking for onagers by jeep
Photo of search for onagers by jeep 2
Fleeing onagers, photographed from the jeep
Photo of fleeing onagers, photographed from the jeep 3
Habitat fragmentation in the study area Bahram-e Goor
Photo of habitat fragmentation in the study area Bahram-e Goor 4
C. Walzer preparing darts for onager anesthesia
Photo of Dr.Walzer preparing darts for onager anesthesia 5
A sign of the protected areas Bahram-el-Goor, which is named for onager (Goor means wild ass)
Photo of a sign of the protected areas Bahram-el-Goor 6
Bahram Gur Hunting Onagers with Fitna, Page from the Haft paykar from a manuscript of the Khamsa of Nizami, at the Brooklyn Museum (Gift of the Ernest Erickson Foundation)
Painting of Bahram Gur Hunting Onagers from a manuscript of the Khamsa of Nizami 7

Both the habitat and the number of Asiatic wild ass (Equus hemionus) have declined consistently in recent years.  Previously widespread from  China to Turkey and from India to Kazakhstan, the species now lives only in a few areas of China, India, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran.  As one of six subspecies of the Asian wild ass the onager (E.h. onager) is a taxon considered in danger of extinction (CR, C1). With the exception of the Syrian wild ass (E. h hemippus), which is already extinct, all other subspecies are also classified as endangered.

In Iran, the last two remaining onager populations live in protected areas (Bahram-e Goor and Touran).  Very little is known about the ecology of these remaining populations. Iran's Environment Agency (DoE) has estimated their population size at 200-300 animals. An undetermined but considerable number of animals migrate seasonally.

Knowledge about abundance and an understanding of the spatial and temporal forms of habitat use of wild animals is of fundamental importance for adaptive management of the species. In the case of the onager there are knowledge gaps about abundance and habitat connectivity for the two remaining habitats in Iran. This project aims to answer some of these fundamental issues.

Questions about relatedness between the different populations of Asiatic wild ass have not been definitively resolved, and at the moment the Iranian onager and the Turkmen khulan are managed as separate subspecies. In zoos, the animals are kept separately and not interbred, which costs space and resources. Another aim of our study therefore is to assess  whether onager and khulan are in fact different enough to warrant treating them as independent subspecies.  To do so the genetic population structure of the Iranian population will be analyzed and compared with that of surrounding populations of wild ass. This comparison will also give us insight into any possibly still existing gene flow among wild asses inside Iran.

Protected area network in Iran (in green) with the two areas where onagers live (Map by P. Kaczensky)
Map of the protected area network in Iran 8

Project partner

Logo of Isfahan University of Technology 9

Department of Natural Resources, Isfahan University of Technology, Iran


Our science sponsors

Logo of Hagenbeck Zoo 10

Logo of VDZ 11


Project contacts

Scientific contact at the Research Institute of Wildlife Ecology Christian Walzer

T. +43 (1) 25077-7180

Email Chris Walzer


Dr.rer.silv. Petra Kaczensky

T. +43 (1)25077-7181

Email Petra Kaczensky


Project partner

Dr. Mohamoud-Reza Hemami 12, Department of Natural Resources, Isfahan University of Technology, Iran,  Email Mohamoud-Reza Hemami


General contact


Savoyenstraße 1
A-1160 Wien

T +43 1 25077-7900
F +43 1 25077-7941

Email FIWI