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The Syrian wild ass (Equus hemionus hemippus), less commonly known as a hemippe, is an extinct subspecies of onager native to the Arabian peninsula. It ranged across present-day Syria, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

Description

The Syrian wild ass, only one metre high at its shoulder, was the smallest form of Equidae and could not be domesticated. Its colouring changed with the seasons—a tawny olive coat for the summer months and pale sandy yellow for the winter. It was known, like other onagers, to be untameable, and was compared to a thoroughbred horse for its beauty and strength.

Distribution and habitat

The Syrian wild ass lived in deserts, semideserts, arid grasslands and mountain steppes. Native to West Asia, they were found in Israel, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

Ecology and behaviour

Diet

The Syrian wild ass was a grazer. It fed grass, herbs, leaves, shrubs and tree branches.

Predation

Syrian wild asses were majorly preyed upon by Asiatic lions. Leopards, striped hyenas, grey wolves and Caspian tigers also fed on the onagers. Asiatic cheetahs may have preyed on onager foals.

History

European travelers in the Middle East during the 15th and 16th centuries reported seeing large herds. However, its numbers began to drop precipitously during the 18th and 19th centuries due to overhunting, and its existence was further imperiled by the regional upheaval of World War I. The last known wild specimen was fatally shot in 1927 at Al Ghams near the Azraq oasis in Jordan, and the last captive specimen died the same year at the Tiergarten Schönbrunn, in Vienna.

Restoration

After the extinction of the Syrian wild ass, the Persian onager from Iran was chosen as the appropriate subspecies to replace the extinct onagers in the Middle East. The Persian onager was then introduced to the protected areas of Saudi Arabia and Jordan. It was also reintroduced, along with the Turkmenian kulan, to Israel, where they both reproduce wild ass hybrids in the Negev Mountains and the Yotvata Hai-Bar Nature Reserve.

Cultural references

It is believed this may be the "wild ass" which Ishmael was prophesied to be in Genesis in the Old Testament. References also appear in the Old Testament books of Job, Psalms, Jeremiah and the Deuterocanonical book of Sirach.

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