Disclaimer: Written before lockdown.

The kiang isn’t just the largest Asian wild ass. It’s also the only one to brave the Tibetan Plateau.

Provided there are enough straw-like explosions of stipa grass, it can survive happily at up to to 4,000 metres (13,123 feet) elevation. So it’s no surprise that English naturalist Richard Lydekker, in his early 20th century musings, noted

…their hoofs must be like flint, and their lungs as strong as bellows.

But that’s not the only reason it’s a badass.

For another, it’s been known to chase cars.

Running Kiang Group at Tsokar Lake. Photo by AmitRane1975.

According to Jiang Fumei of China Today, a highway in Qinghai has seen various kiang charge alongside traffic at up to 60kmh (37mph), for tens of minutes in some cases, and if they outrun it, they stop further ahead and wait to resume the game. Of course, this puts it in the line of fire of poachers, and it’s sometimes killed for its meat or leather.

However, you’ll be pleased to know it gave its 19th century discoverers a run for their money.

During his travels in the Himalayas, vet William Moorcroft made several attempts to “bring one down”:

Some were wounded, but not sufficiently to check their speed, and they quickly bounded up the rocks, where it was impossible to follow. They would afford excellent sport to four or five men well mounted, but a single individual has no chance.

Our friend Richard Lydekker made a similar observation about the difficulty of hunting kiang, but more for the fact that they go

… about in small troops, which gallop in circles round the mounted traveller or his camp in such a manner as to completely prevent in many instances the successful pursuit of nobler game, or, I might say, game of any kind, as kiang are scarcely entitled to that designation.

Burn. What’s more, the young ones were brazen enough to almost wander through the camp.

So what is this Asian equid, which seems as tough as nails?

I didn’t say it looked it.

Its genetics seem pretty muddy, to be honest.

We’re not 100% sure if it’s a subspecies of the Asiatic wild ass, Equus hemonius, or indeed if it has its own subspecies: the imaginatively named eastern, southern, and western kiang. Genetically it’s only about 1% different from the Asiatic wild ass – then again we share 99% of the same DNA as chimps – and its subspecies might just be a fashion parade. Although it keeps a white belly all year round, the kiang veers between having a reddish upper coat in summer, and a darker brown one in winter.

It’s clearly budged from its inherent donkeyness because it has shorter ears and a thick tail tuft, so at a distance it looks more like a horse.

It was an ass researching its social life though.

The kiang hasn’t been studied all that much – perhaps it won’t let us close enough – and I found several contradictory accounts. But I was able to garner that the most solid social bond is between a mother and her foal. You can’t blame her after baking it for 355 days, but while other sources claim female herds also have a tight bond, there’s a distinct lack of communal grooming found in other horsey gatherings.

As for the males, they usually defend a territory in breeding season, but come winter, any bloody battles are forgiven and they form bachelor herds with their buddies.

This might be for warmth rather than protection, but then again unlike its African relatives, the kiang loves splashing through water, even the icy stabs you’d get from a high altitude Tibetan bath. And what’s more, apart from the odd human poacher, its only real predator is the wolf.

In areas free of humans, the kiang has flourished, and doesn’t seem to be in need of help any time soon. Its environment may be another matter, though.


Latin: Equus kiang

What? World’s largest wild ass/donkey.

Where? The Tibetan Plateau, as well as parts of India and Pakistan, occasionally at more than 4,000m / 13,123 feet elevation.

How big? Up to 140cm / 55 inches at the shoulder.

Endangered? Considered Least Concern due to a wide range and numbers, and legal protection in most of its home range. However, due to said range and some fractured populations, it’s hard to get an accurate picture of its status.

Probable motto: I’m the ass that could kick you.

They look cute. Do they need my help at all?

Due to its range, inhospitable home and legal protection in China and Tibet, we don’t think the kiang is currently at risk of being endangered, in fact its numbers are thought to have increased in some areas. Having said this, farmers aren’t exactly fans due to competition with grazing for livestock, and fences can also isolate herds from food or water sources. More research is apparently needed, but there are no conservation drives at the moment.

Just to prove I’m not fibbing:

Blyth, Edward. 1840. “Notice of some of the additional species of the genus Equus to those currently admitted by Zoologists“, in The Magazine of Natural History by Charlesworth, Edward, 81-87.

Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. No date. “Kiang“. Britannica.com.

High altitude“. No date. Altitude Physiology Expeditions.

Jiang, Fumei. 2018. “Equus kiang: wanderer of the plateau”. China Today.

Kiang“. No date. Merriam-Webster.

Luo, Yongjun et al. 2011. “Mitochondrial genome sequence of the Tibetan wild ass (Equus kiang)“, Mitochondrial DNA, 22(1-2):6-8.

Lydekker, F.R.S. 1912. “The horse and its relatives“. George Allen & Company.

Naish, Darren. 2013. “Fantastic asses“. Scientific American.

Paklina, Natalia & Orden, Chris. 2007. “Territorial Behaviour of Kiang (Equus kiang Moorcroft, 1841) in Ladakh (India)“.

Shah, N. et al. 2015. “Equus kiang The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species” 2015: e.T7953A45171635.

St-Louis, Antoine, and  Côté, Steeve D. 2009. “Equus kiang (Perissodactyla: Equidae),” Mammalian Species 2009(835):1-1.

Su, Xukun et al. 2018.Using an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to study wild yak in the highest desert in the world“, International Journal of Remote Sensing, 39(15-16):5490-5503.

Wang, Hui-Yu. No date. “Equus kiang“. Animal Diversity Web.

Wong, Kate. 2014. “Tiny genetic differences between humans and other primates pervade the genome“. Scientific American.


Featured image credit: Photo by MuYeeTing.