The Changthang plateau might be the quietest place I’ve ever been, and the sight of the kiang grazing in those flat, arid grasslands might be the most peaceful of all sights in the region. With its ruddy back and creamy white belly set off by a short dark mane, the kiang stands out naturally against the dull greens and sandy browns of Ladakh’s summer landscape.
The mane isn’t flowing and silky like those of horses, but it provides visual definition. Together with the black tips of the ears and the tail, it creates the sense of an animal that is alert even when it is doing nothing. Watching a drove of these Tibetan wild asses in Changthang’s high altitude pastures is a little like watching a herd of chital deer in the North Indian jungle; keeping track of kiang behaviour is a good way of knowing if there’s a predator approaching.
In terms of classification, the kiang is an odd-toed ungulate, and an equid. An ungulate is a hoofed mammal, a category further divided by whether the number of toes that make up the animal’s hoof are odd or even. The eighteen species of odd-toed ungulates in the world are called Perissodactyls. They include tapirs, seven species of equids, and five types of rhinos. Equids, writes Vivek Menon in his useful guide Indian Mammals, are specialised grazers comprising horses, zebras, and asses that originated in North America 55 million years ago and have been in Asia for 1.8 million years now. “[Equids] put their entire weight on the central toe, which gives them a springy gait and, therefore, speed in flight,” writes Menon.
The kiang is the largest wild ass species and one of India’s two wild equids, the other being the Indian wild ass or khur. Wild asses are larger than donkeys, but smaller than horses. The khur’s population has declined over the last century, but the kiang continues to have wide distribution and a large enough population to be in the ‘Least Concern’ category of the IUCN Red List. So populous is the kiang, in fact, that local belief is that there are too many of them. “On the Chinese side, they get eaten. Here, we don’t kill them, so they have all come over to the Indian side,” laughed the Leh hotelier and self-taught wildlife guide David Sonam.
But according to a study conducted by Yash Veer Bhatnagar, Rinchen Wangchuk, and others in 2006, Ladakh’s “range-wide density estimate of 0.24 kiang sq km…is comparable to kiang densities reported from Tibet”. The current global population estimate for kiang is 60,000-70,000 animals, 90 per cent of which are found in China. The only published estimate of the kiang population in Ladakh comes from the late 1980s, when approximately 1,500 animals were estimated (Fox and others 1991; Shah 2002). Current estimates for Ladakh stand at about 2,500.
So why do Ladakhis believe that kiang numbers are excessive? Bhatnagar et al suggest that there are historical reasons for this local perception. During the Indo-China War of 1962, increased army presence, loss of pastures, and the immigration of a large Tibetan community into Ladakh led to a steep decline in the number of kiang. After a couple of decades of stability, the kiang population began to naturally replenish itself. During the period 1977 to 1999, according to government records, livestock in Ladakh doubled. Bhatnagar et al credit this to local herders gradually gaining access to better health care, provisions, and subsidies, as well as supplemental forage provided by the government in winter, drastically reducing the mortality of sheep and goats. Economic changes and greater interaction with the cash economy also led to a shift in how valuable herders perceived their livestock to be, especially the Changra goat whose long soft hair is spun into pashmina, but also the horse, which Changpa nomads raise for transport.
Since kiang feed on the same grasses and sedges that provide food for domesticated animals, Bhatnagar et al noted in 2006 that “politicians and the district administration in Ladakh” had begun “blaming the kiang for compromising cashmere production.” Through the 2000s, the district administration, especially in Han Le where more fertile pasture land means greater kiang presence, responded by fencing off some of the sedge meadows, which were assumed to be more economically useful if consumed by sheep and goats.
In Han Le in July 2019, I saw some fenced-off areas, but the only animals inside the boundaries were a few marmots: those distinctive Himalayan rodents that look a little like large, cute squirrels with big sandy-coloured tails. No kiang seemed particularly interested in breaking through barbed wire to enter these enclosed pastures — but perhaps that calm prevailed because it was summer, and there was no shortage of grass.
Over four days in Tso Kar and Han Le, I saw the kiang many times — in rolling open grasslands, or by the edge of one of the marshy wetlands that characterise the Changthang Wildlife Sanctuary. The solitary stallion out on a day-long expedition was as common as the stag party of four or five males, grazing quietly for long stretches of time. It was in the larger mixed groups — where there were females and foals — that I saw the animal at its most skittish. Once I watched a male kiang nuzzle a female in a gentle but persistent way, in what was clearly courtship mode (kiangs often breed in July and August). Another time, in the dawn light of Han Le’s Ragor area, I watched two males butt each other for minutes, but their competitiveness still felt like a playful collegial ritual, rather some fight to the death. I guess there’s a reason they call it horsing around.