My travels take me to some very exotic places where I encounter some very exotic animals, but this week I discovered one of the rarest creatures in the world living in my own backyard.
The Persian onager (Equus hemionus onager) is practically extinct in the wild. Once ranging from Israel to Mongolia, the animal now numbers only about 500, sequestered in two protected areas of Iran. In order to ensure we don’t lose this species entirely, conservationists have started breeding the animal in captivity.
On September 6th of this year, a baby onager was born at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) in Front Royal, Virginia. I didn’t have to drive far at all to go and visit this rare baby mammal who was grazing peacefully with her mother in a large enclosure in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.
I find that all baby animals are outrageously cute but this particular pint-size onager filly was simply heart-melting. About two feet high and covered with curly blond fur, the onager stuck right next to her mother and gazed up at me with some degree of mistrust. She is the 27th onager born in the United States, as part of a species protection plan for herd animals, administered by the Conservation Centers for Species Survival.
Onagers have been around for thousands of years and have always remained wild—humans have never successfully tamed the animal. The more common farmyard donkey is a descendant of the domesticated wild African ass whereas the wild Asian ass, or onager, is an exceptionally fast runner and notoriously unruly.
During my visit, this little filly showed off her amazing running skills as she galloped after her mother. “I want to name her Sayeh,” said animal keeper Dolores Reed. “It means shadow in Farsi, because she follows her mother so closely, just like a shadow.”
Iran is a country that I dream of visiting one day, but until that happens, I am simply grateful for the opportunity to witness its wildlife up close and within driving distance of my own home.