The equine family includes horses, donkeys as well as zebras and wild asses. Zebras are found only in Africa, but wild asses have a much larger range. The Asiatic wild ass (Equus hemionus), also called the onager, has five subspecies, of which the khur (Equus hemionus khur), or ghorkhad as it is called in Gujarat, is one.
According to a studbook (register of animal pedigrees) prepared by the Wildlife Institute of India and Central Zoo Authority, the khur was “once widely distributed across the arid region of northwest India (including present day Pakistan) and westwards through much of central Asia towards Syria.” Today, the species is found largely in the Little Rann of Kutch in Gujarat, in a protected area called the Wild Ass Sanctuary.
Spread over roughly 5,000 sq km, this protected area has an exceptional landscape — it is both saline desert and seasonal wetland. During the parched summer months, the Little Rann is vast, desiccated, and dotted with scrubby patches of vegetation, but with the monsoon, the region is inundated with water, attracting a bevy of migratory waterbirds that congregate here in awesome numbers. The UNESCO World Heritage document calls the Rann “one of the most remarkable and unique landscapes of its kind in the entire world.”
The khur is a full-time resident of the Little Rann and can be seen galloping across the flatlands in herds, often at speeds of up to 70 kmph. These swift, elegant mammals were once critically endangered, with global numbers down to 700 in the 1970s. But thanks to concerted conservation efforts, things have changed significantly, and rather surprisingly.
“This year’s census recorded around 6,000 khur,” reports Abhijeet Dutta in a Mongabay article from October 2020, “indicating a 30% increase in its population in the past five years.” Normally, this surge in population would be a cause for celebration in conservation circles, but in the absence of wildlife corridors for the animals to disperse, this has increased instances of conflict with humans, and disease due to the proximity with livestock in human-dominated areas.