The Abyssinian Wild Ass, the Anatolia donkey, and the Tibetan wild ass are the ancestors of the domesticated donkey.
Their range is vast, from the deserts and savannahs of North Africa – from Morocco in the west to Somalia in the east. Onwards across the Arabian Peninsula, into the Middle East and further east still to Central Asia.
The words ass and donkey come from different origins but they mean the same thing and can be used interchangeably.
The word ass comes from the Latin word asinus. The word donkey probably comes from Middle English and the word dun, from the animal’s dun brown colour. Donikie combines the dun colour with a diminutive ending – a little brown horse.
Whatever name you give it, its scientific name is Equus africanus asinus. It is a four-footed animal with long ears, a furry tail. It is in the same family as horses and zebras.
The donkey’s long ears help it to hear, but they also help keep the animal cool because they have numerous small veins that act like an air conditioner.
Other species donkeys breed with, and what their offspring are called
Male asses are known as jacks and females are jennies. A jackass is simply a male ass.
And donkeys will mate with both horses and zebras.
- A male donkey and a female horse beget a mule.
- A female donkey and a male horse beget a hinny.
- A donkey and a zebra beget what is variously called a zebroid, a zonkey or a zeedonk.
The striped legs on the Abyssinian wild ass makes you wonder whether in the genetic family history of the animal, there is a bit of zebra DNA.
The offspring of these crosses are almost always infertile. Despite that, breeders like mules because they are bigger and can carry greater loads for longer.
Famous donkeys in literature
In Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote, the nobleman Alonso Quixano reads so many medieval books of chivalry that he goes mad. He renames himself Don Quixote de la Mancha and sets out to do heroic deeds in the service of his country.
He employs Sancho Panza, a poor, simple farmer, to work for him as his squire. And off Don Quixote rides on his worn out horse Rocinante. Sancho Panza rides his donkey named Dapple, otherwise know at El Rucio from the grey colour of its coat.
The animals they ride reflect the owners. Dapple the donkey is more plodding and simple, but also more practical. It also is in better condition than the worn out horse that Don Quixote rides.
At one level Dapple and its rider are more suited to deal with the world as it is. But it is Sancho Panza who comes off worst in most of their encounters. Meanwhile Don Quixote on his horse sails on unaware of the mess he leaves behind him.
Alan Alexander Milne’s Winne The Pooh
Eeyore is the old grey donkey and friend of Winnie-the-Pooh. He is always pessimistic, gloomy, and depressed. He is unable to experience the pleasure of the moment. What is to become of Eeyore?
Donkeys at work
Donkeys are used as pack animals and for pulling ploughs. You may have seen videos of donkeys carrying loads of bricks in the brick kilns in Egypt. The donkey charity Spana describes the short, hard life of donkeys in some countries as “a life filled with the pain of carrying loads day in day out. When working animals are sick, injured or in pain, there is no rest.”
In contrast to that, here is Arthur Mangin describing the ass in his 1869 book, The Desert World:
The domestic ass of the East differs notably from the slow, dogged, ill-used animal of European notoriety. Under a more favourable climate, and in the free life of the desert, he has preserved his tall stature, his vigour, and the haughtiness of his bearing. The wealthiest and most distinguished personages do not disdain to mount him or harness him to their carriage. He has a keen eye, a quick scent, a sure foot, a mild and resolute aspect. He accomplishes with ease from six to eight miles an hour; and, lastly—a fact worthy of notice—his life, which with us seldom exceeds fifteen years, in Asia is frequently prolonged to thirty or thirty-five. He is less subject to sickness than the horse, and he almost equals the camel in sobriety, docility, and endurance of hunger and fatigue.
How different from today, with the well-report ill treatment of donkeys in the Middle East. Compare that with the high regard with which donkeys are held in the UK.
Donkeys numbers around the world
Donkeys are important work animals across the world. They work as pack animals and as plough animals.
You may be surprised at which countries have the biggest donkey populations.
There are fifteen million donkeys in Africa. The majority are in a belt across North Africa – dry, desert country suited to donkeys. Five million of them are in Ethiopia, one-and-a-half million in Egypt, and a million in Nigeria.
The donkeys of Ethiopia takes us back to our Abyssinian Wild Ass. (Abyssinia is the former name for Ethiopia).
In South and Central America there are three million in Mexico and a million in Brazil.
In Asia there are four million in Pakistan, and one-and-a-half million in Iran. There are one-and-a-half million in India, and a million in Afghanistan.
The greatest number by far are in China. There were eleven million but that may have fallen because of the following:
Donkeys are in danger because of Ejiao
And now we can get to the bad news: According to industry statistics, four million donkey skins are used every year to make ejiao, a traditional Chineses medicine.
Ejiao was originally used for pain relief, but nowadays it is claimed to cure many diseases and disorders.
According to an October 2017 article in the Guardian newspaper, a medicine made from donkey skins is huge business in China. And that affects donkeys around the world.
In the past twenty years, the number of donkeys in China has fallen from eleven million to below six million. Ejiao production is part of the story. The other part is the mass migration of rural Chinese to the cities, which has meant that fewer donkeys are needed.
But there are still not enough donkeys for ejiao production. So ejiao producers look to other countries for donkey skins. That raises the price of donkeys in, say, rural Africa and prices local people out of the market.
It’s the way of the world. A new use is made for a formerly cheap resource, and the balance in society is upset.
Perhaps Eeyore is right to be always pessimistic, gloomy, and depressed. Perhaps he is unable to experience the pleasure of the moment because he always sees the bigger picture.
Abyssinian Wild Ass Greeting Card
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5 October 2019 THE WEEK : From an article in Deutschland Welle
Could donkeys join tigers and rhinos as a threatened species, asks Silja Frohlich. The idea seems absurd, but they too are falling prey to the insatiable Asian demand for animal products with alleged curative properties. Donkey skins are used in the Chinese cosmetics industry, boiled to create “Ejiao” — a gelatin substance said to cure skin-ageing and also to help with infertility and impotence. In China, a single donkey skin can fetch $473, so producers are turning to Africa, where animals can be bought more cheaply.
In Kenya, live donkeys now change hands for €175, up from €70 just two years ago, and more than a thousand are slaughtered daily for their skins. In many African countries, donkey theft is becoming as much of a problem as the poaching of elephants and rhinos. Farmers are obliged to keep donkeys indoors at night if they don’t want to find a skinned carcass in the morning.
In Burkina Faso, the trade has been outlawed, and other countries may follow — but that will only increase criminality. Donkeys are a vital means of transport in Africa — but at this rate, charities warn they could be wiped out. How strange that so useful a beast may be threatened with extinction.