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The Odd Toed ungulates of India

GREATER ONE HORNED RHINOCEROS

The Definition of Ungulates

Ungulates are mammals distinguished by the presence of hooves, which are enlarged toenails. Initially, the term “ungulate” specifically encompassed the orders Artiodactyla (even-toed) and Perissodactyla (odd-toed). However, recent studies have broadened this classification to include other mammals such as elephants, hyraxes, and sea cows, collectively known as Paenungulates, based on genetic relationships rather than solely on physical characteristics. The term “ungulate” originates from the Latin word “ungula,” meaning hoof.

While most ungulates are herbivores, it’s worth noting exceptions like the Wild Boar, which are omnivores. Though they do not actively hunt animals, they may scavenge carcasses or consume prey killed by predators. This highlights the diversity within the ungulate group in terms of dietary habits.

What are Odd Toed Ungulates (Perissodactyl)

Perissodactyls, a group consisting of eighteen species of ungulates including equids, rhinos, and tapirs, are characterized by having an odd number of toes, with most species facing endangerment. The name “Perissodactyls” stems from their unique foot structure where the middle toe is larger than the others, creating a condition known as mesaxonic. Typically, these animals have three digits on their hindfoot and three or four on their forefoot, although some species retain only a single digit, specifically the third.

In India, equids possess a single toe while rhinos have three toes. Rhinoceros, categorized as mega herbivores, are distinguished by having one or two sharp conical horns on their noses. There exist five rhino species globally, with two found in Africa and three in Asia. Unlike most artiodactyls, Perissodactyls possess a simple stomach instead of a chambered structure. They also have an enlarged, sacculate cecum where bacterial digestion of cellulose occurs.

During the early Tertiary period, Perissodactyls were a dominant group with 14 families and numerous species. One notable extinct species, Paraceratherium, holds the distinction of being the largest land mammal to have ever lived, standing approximately 5.4 meters tall at the shoulder and weighing around 30,000 kilograms (five times the weight of modern elephants!). However, their population dwindled during the Oligocene era, coinciding with the ascendance of another group of large, herbivorous mammals known as artiodactyls. Today, only three families and a total of eighteen species of Perissodactyls remain.

Indian Perissodactyl

  1. Equids

Equids, comprising horses, zebras, and asses, hold a significant place in human history and religion, captivating hearts with their grace, beauty, faithfulness, and service. Originating in North America 55 million years ago, they later colonized Asia around 1.8 million years ago. Equids are specialized grazers, relying on their central toe to bear their entire weight, enabling a springy gait that contributes to their remarkable speed and agility.

Unlike ruminants, equids have long incisors and specialized molars, and they exhibit social behavior by living in large herds. Their gallop over open stretches is a display of unique grace and power characteristic of this family. In India, wild equids include the Tibetan wild ass or Kiang, and the Indian wild ass or Khur, representing the presence of these fascinating animals in diverse ecosystems.

Common Name: ASIATIC WILD ASS

Scientific Name: Equus hemionus

IUCN Status:  Near Threatened

The Indian wild ass is a medium-sized equid with a fawn or chestnut coloration. It features a distinct dark chocolate “hog bristle” fringe of hair on its neck, which transitions into a broad chocolate stripe edged with white extending to the base of the tail. The tail itself is short and naked, with a tuft of black hairs at the tip.

The coat of the Indian wild ass remains uniform in length throughout the year, with its color varying from reddish grey to greyish fawn in summer and becoming a pale chestnut or almost isabelline shade in winter.

Interestingly, subadult males and females of the Indian wild ass can only be differentiated when they urinate.

Ecology: Female Khur (Indian wild ass) typically begin breeding at 2 or 3 years of age, exhibiting pronounced seasonality in their reproductive activity. The gestation period in captivity ranges from approximately 342 to 397 days, with an average of around 370 days.

Mating and foaling among Khur predominantly occur during the monsoon season (June-September), which coincides with vegetative growth, and taper off into peak winter (December-January). All recorded births are typically single births. Male foals are typically weaned between 1 to 2 years of age, while female foals continue to remain with the family band. Post-partum estrus, or heat cycle, has been observed in equines, including the wild ass. While wild ass mares are considered monoestrous (having one estrus cycle per year), they exhibit seasonally polyestrous behavior. In the Little Rann of Kutch, the population of Khur demonstrates a sex ratio of 51 to 66 males per 100 females. Additionally, the foal-to-female ratio ranges from 42 to 66 foals per 100 females, providing insights into the population dynamics and demographics of this species in its natural habitat.

Equids, such as the Khur (Indian wild ass), are adaptable generalist herbivores and hindgut fermenters, which means they efficiently digest coarse plants. Their range is often constrained by the need for regular access to water.

The activity pattern of Khur remains consistent year-round, with resting being a predominant behavior. Family bands of Khur spend about 28% of their daytime feeding, while all-male herds allocate approximately 24% of their daytime to feeding. During winter, Khur reduce daytime feeding and may resort to raiding crops at night.Wild asses in the Little Rann of Kutch are nocturnal, maximizing resource intake in areas where natural vegetation meets agriculture.

 

ASIATIC WILD ASS

 

In the summer, when water becomes scarce and grasses dry up, Khur rely on alternative food sources such as pods from Prosopis trees. This dietary flexibility allows them to adapt to changing seasonal conditions. Khur have been documented feeding on nineteen different plant species, including six crop species. This ability to utilize a diverse range of plants, especially during challenging times like summer, contributes significantly to their survival in their natural habitat.

Distribution Originally, the Khur was confined to the Little Rann of Kutch in Gujarat. However, due to decreasing aridity and the expansion of agricultural areas, the wild ass has extended its range along the southern and eastern fringes of the greater Rann of Kutch and into eastern Rajasthan. Additionally, a small population of wild asses exists in the Nal Sarovar Bird Sanctuary. This expansion of habitat highlights the ability of the Khur to adapt to changing environmental conditions and utilize new areas for survival and population growth.

Best place to see them: Wild Ass Wildlife Sanctuary, Gujarat

Also Read : Types of Bear species found in India

 

Common Name: TIBETAN WILD ASS

Scientific Name: Equus kiang

IUCN Status:  Least Concerned

The Kiang, also known as the Tibetan wild ass, is distinct from the Khur (Indian wild ass) in several physical characteristics. The Kiang is larger and has a more ruddy or reddish-brown coloration compared to the Khur. Its muzzle is longer and thicker, and its head is proportionately larger. The body of the Kiang is darker chestnut-brown with white undersides. It has a mane similar to the Khur but longer, and its dorsal stripe is narrow and dark, extending from the neck to the tail. The tail of the Kiang is longer than that of the Khur, with a tuft of hairs that extends beyond just the tip. The hooves of the Kiang are rounded and broad like those of horses, and they are black in color. Additionally, the fetlocks of the Kiang are encircled by a thin black band. The tips of the ears of the Kiang are also black, adding to its distinctive appearance compared to the Khur. These physical differences reflect the unique adaptations of the Kiang to its habitat in the Tibetan Plateau.

Ecology: The Kiang is a shy yet inquisitive animal that inhabits plains and rocky terrains, capable of galloping at a good speed. They live in highly cohesive herds led by an old female, with members exhibiting synchronized behavior in activities like eating, drinking, turning, and running, often traveling in single file. Unlike horses, there is little physical contact or mutual grooming among Kiang individuals. Male Kiangs start following female herds in July, engaging in aggressive fights for breeding rights through August. By mid-August, males begin herding females into harems, defending them against rival males.

They capitalize on the period of plentiful vegetation in August and September, sometimes gaining up to 40-45 kilograms in weight during this time. These behaviors and adaptations demonstrate how Kiangs thrive in their natural habitat, exhibiting unique social structures and survival strategies.

 

Wild Ass Kiang

 

Distribution: The Kiang is primarily found in the Trans-Himalayan eastern plateaus of Ladakh district in Jammu and Kashmir, as well as in Sikkim. In India, it is known to inhabit elevations ranging from 2700 meters to 5300 meters. In Nepal, the Kiang is found at higher altitudes, typically between 4650 meters to 6000 meters. More recently, the Kiang has also been reported from the Trans-Himalayan region of Uttarakhand.

Best places to see them: Chang Chenmo valley and Hanle Basin, Ladakh.

Threats and conservation of wild equids in India:

Wild equids in India, such as the Kiang and Khur, face significant threats primarily from domestic livestock. In Ladakh, over 200,000 livestock share pastures with the Kiang, leading to competition for resources and habitat degradation. Similarly, in Sikkim, around 2500 yaks and sheep compete for limited drinking water, further impacting the small habitat of wild equids.

Livestock also serve as carriers of diseases that can be devastating to wild equid populations. Disease outbreaks pose a significant threat to both the Kiang and Khur. For example, the Khur population experienced a drastic decline from 3000-5000 animals in the 1950s to around 400 in 1970 due to an outbreak of Sura, a parasitic trypanosome disease.

Additionally, conflicts with local farmers over resource use and habitat encroachment contribute to the challenges faced by wild equids in India. Addressing these threats requires comprehensive conservation efforts focused on mitigating human-wildlife conflicts, managing livestock grazing, and implementing disease control measures to ensure the survival and recovery of wild equid populations.

Also Read : 4 Leopard species in India

  1. Rhinoceros

There are five species of rhinos in the world. These includes two include two African rhino species – black and white rhinos. The remaining three are Asian rhino species, which include greater one–horned, Sumatran and Javan rhinos. The Sumatran, Javan and Black rhinos are listed as ‘critically endangered’ by the IUCN – there are thought to be fewer than 70 Javan rhinos and between 34-47 Sumatran rhinos left, which makes them truly under threat of extinction in the wild. There are an estimated 6,487 black rhinos across Africa. The white rhino is classified as ‘near threatened’ with 16,803 individuals, whereas the greater one-horned rhino is currently vulnerable with 4,014 individuals in the wild.

Common Name: GREATER ONE-HORNED RHINOCEROS

Scientific Name: Rhinoceros unicornis

IUCN Status:  Vulnerable

The one-horned rhinoceros, also known as the Indian rhinoceros, is easily recognizable by its large size and the presence of a single horn on its nose. This horn is composed of keratin, a substance similar to hair. Distinctive features of the one-horned rhino include two large folds of skin across its flanks and tubercles (rounded protrusions) on its rear, resembling rivets on its skin, which give it an armor-plated appearance not seen in other rhino species. The natural color of the rhino’s skin is a deep slate-grey hue. However, the skin can appear ashy when covered with alluvial mud or ink-black when wet. The skin is largely devoid of hair, with hair only present at the tip of its small, naked tail, on the tips of its large, tubular ears, and as eyelashes over its small, beady eyes. The one-horned rhinoceros has large, three-toed hooves, which aid in supporting its massive bulk and navigating its habitat. These distinctive physical characteristics contribute to the unique appearance and adaptations of the one-horned rhinoceros.

Ecology: The Indian rhinoceros is predominantly a grazer and is often found near water bodies for feeding, wallowing, and resting. Unlike some other species, mating occurs throughout the year, and there is no specific calving season. They frequently wallow in lakes, rivers, and temporary pools, with a peak observed wallowing period between June and October. Wallowing likely serves as a means of heat regulation, especially in hot weather, and helps in escaping flies, particularly prevalent in tall grasslands during the monsoon season. The Indian rhino is the most aquatic of all rhino species, displaying ease in wading and swimming. They feed on a variety of aquatic plants. Although they prefer swampy and grassy habitats, they can also be found in wooded areas, ravines, and low hills. The gestation period for Indian rhino ranges between 16 and 18 months, with a single calf typically born during the rainy season. Mother rhinos are protective of their calves and keep them isolated from other rhinos, as the newborn calves are vulnerable to predation during this critical period. Adult rhinos face various risks, including mortality due to diseases like anthrax, road accidents, drowning during floods, and injuries sustained during fights between individuals. Males reach sexual maturity around 7 years of age, while females mature earlier at around 5 years. The lifespan of a rhino in the wild is typically 30-35 years, while those in captivity can live longer, with a lifespan of up to 47 years.

 

GREATER ONE HORNED RHINOCEROS

 

Distribution: The one-horned rhinoceros, or Indian rhinoceros, is distributed across nine distinct populations in India, primarily in the Terai and Bhabar tracts of northern India, as well as in the Brahmaputra River basin in the northeastern region of the country.

Best places to see them: Kaziranga National Park, Manas National Park, and Dudhwa National Park.

Threats and conservation of Rhinos in India

The Indian rhinoceros, faces significant threats to its survival, primarily due to habitat loss and fragmentation caused by human activities such as deforestation, agriculture expansion, and infrastructure development. Another major threat comes from poaching for its horn, which is highly valued in traditional Asian medicine markets despite a global ban on rhino horn trade. Additionally, the encroachment of domestic livestock into rhino habitats poses competition for resources and increases the risk of disease transmission to wild populations. Recurrent flooding of their habitat and road accidents are another threat to the population of the rhinos.

Conservation efforts for Indian rhinos are crucial and include initiatives such as habitat protection, restoration of degraded areas, and anti-poaching measures to curb illegal hunting. Conservation organizations and government agencies work together to establish protected areas and corridors, improve law enforcement, and engage local communities in rhino conservation through education and livelihood development programs. Captive breeding and translocation projects aim to establish new populations and enhance genetic diversity. The success of these conservation strategies depends on sustained commitment, collaboration, and support from governments, conservationists, local communities, and the international community to ensure the long-term survival of the magnificent Indian rhinoceros.

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