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

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.