The Mongolian Wild Ass / Khulan

Its current status

- "Near threatened" in the IUCN Red List and "Endangered" in the Mongolian Red List of Mammals 

- Appendix I of the CITES

- Appendix II of the CMS

Painting from the Mongolian artist Anu Naran (detail)
Painting from the Mongolian artist Anu Naran (detail)

The Mongolian Khulan, also known as the Mongolian Wild Ass (Equus hemionus hemionus) is one of the 5 recognized subspecies of the Asiatic Wild Ass and currently represents the largest population of the Asiatic Wild Ass in the world. The Mongolian Khulan mainly live in south of Mongolia, in the Gobi Desert area, with small populations in north of China. 




Mongolia thus represents a very important place for the Asiatic Wild Ass conservation, hosting about 80% of the global population. 


The Asiatic Wild Ass belongs to the Equids, like horses, donkeys, zebras, Przewalski's horses, African Wild Ass, but is a species on its own. 


Its habitat has decreased over the past years ...

The former range of the Asiatic wild ass between the seventeenth and the middle of the nineteenth century encompassed the greater part of Mongolia, small areas of Siberia and Manchuria, the western part of Inner Mongolia and the northern part of Xinjiang. Southern Mongolia currently holds the largest population of Asiatic wild ass in the world, representing almost 80% of the global population (Feh et al. 2002).  Therefore, Mongolia is a very important stronghold of the Mongolian wild ass.


The population of the Mongolian Khulan (Equus hemionus hemionus) was estimated in 1997 at about 43,165 individuals (Feh et al. 2001, Reading et al. 2001). Numbers have declined significantly to be later estimated in 2003 at 18,411 +/- 898 in four areas (Lkhagvasuren 2007).


To date and as published on the IUCN Red List, the population has been estimated to about 42,000 individuals in Mongolia and seems to be stable. However, this population is at risk due to illegal hunting and fragmentation of its habitat due to an increasing mining activity and development of linear infrastructures in the Gobi Desert. 


In the Gobi, 99% of the habitat is used as livestock pasture. Recently, the habitats long-distance transhumance is a necessity for sustainable pastoralism. Thus, semi-nomadic herders need access to large tracts of land, including protected areas. Moreover, political changes in the early 1990’s forced urban populations to return to nomadic land use, resulting in a sharp increase in human and livestock numbers in many rural areas.


Water in the Gobi Desert area is a critical resource for humans, livestock production and influence wildlife habitat, but is very rare and very scarce. In such area, access to water appears to be one key for the conservation of wild Equids, and if access to water can be secured it can ensure optimal nutritional care of their offspring without huge energy demands on the mother pre and post-partum.


Most water for human and livestock must be obtained from small and hand drawn wells. Numerous mechanical wells were built during the collective era, but most of them have fallen into disrepair since 1990. Because of this lack of wells, herders and their livestock are forced to use open water points also used by wildlife. Khulan do not avoid wells or human settlements, but they preferentially drink at open water points or digging potholes they made in dry riverbeds or dry water points (Kaczensky et al., 2006, and Anne-Camille Souris, observations made in 2008 and 2009). Wells allow human presence in areas where there is little surface of water. But if there is an open water source nearby, then, herders will preferentially use it compared to wells.


Mongolia’s rural economy is mostly based on livestock, thus wild ungulates have to co-exist with semi-nomadic pastoralists.

The Mongolian khulan, a Gobi ecosystem engineer species

The Mongolian Wild Ass Khulan is locally known for its ability to dig 'wells' or 'watering holes' at dry water points and riverbeds to access underground water from which they can drink. This very specific behavior is mostly observed during the dry periods of the year where in the Gobi Desert replenishment of water points depends on rainfall. In order to adapt to the dry periods and the lack of open water points and sources in the Gobi Desert, the Mongolian khulan has adapted and developed this very specific behavior and dug holes of different sizes and depths to access water. 


To know more about the Mongolian Khulan as a Gobi ecosystem engineer species