Wild Donkeys to Roam the Danube Delta Once Again

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©. Andrey Nekrasov | Rewilding Europe. The newly translocated kulan are introduced to the Tarutino Steppe.

Hunted into near extinction, a herd of kulan has been brought back to the steppe after an absence of hundreds of years.

The Danube is one of the world's most spectacular rivers. Starting in Germany's Black Forest, it winds its way for 1770 miles through 10 countries before emptying into the Black Sea in Romania and Ukraine.

But before the river flows into the sea, it forms the largest river delta wetland in Europe, comprising 2,200 square miles of rivers, canals, marshes, lakes, and reed islands. However, while the Danube Delta is rife with birds and other wildlife, there's one thing that's missing: Wild donkeys.

But not for long, thanks to the efforts of non-profits Rewilding Europe and Rewilding Ukraine. The teams have translocated a herd of 20 kulan to the delta's Tarutino Steppe in Ukraine. Eight males and 12 females were released into a large fenced enclosure for a period of acclimation. Later this year or early next year, the herd will be allowed to roam free on the steppe, "returning to an environment where they have been absent for hundreds of year," notes Rewilding Europe.

A subspecies of Asiatic wild ass, the kulan (Equus hemionus kulan) once ranged from the Mediterranean to the east of Mongolia. Sadly for the kulan, two hundred years of hunting and habitat loss has led to a decline of 95 percent of the animal's range; they are now on the IUCN Red List.

kulan wild donkeys

© Andrey Nekrasov/Rewilding Europe

Prior to the release, a feasibility study was conducted to ensure the wisdom of the plan; the release is just the first phase of a longer reintroduction program. Eventually, the initiative will result in a free-roaming herd of 250 to 300 individuals by 2035. The initial group came from the Askania-Nova Biosphere Reserve in southern Ukraine, where a small group of the animals was brought from Turkmenistan nearly 70 years ago.

Playing an important role in the rewilding of the steppe, the kulan are expected to increasing biodiversity while reducing wildfire risk by reducing excess vegetation, and giving boosting nature tourism.

“This programme is really exciting because the kulan, which was once widely distributed across parts of Europe, can perform a vital natural grazing role in dry and cold environments,” says Deli Saavedra, Rewilding Europe’s Rewilding Area Coordinator.

The grazing will also benefit animals like souslik and the steppe marmot; and while they may prove attractive prey for wolves and golden jackals, the kulan is not a sitting duck, so to speak.

"Incredibly hardy, kulan are well-adapted to their environment. As one of the fastest mammals on the planet, they can reach speeds of up to 70 kilometres per hour," notes Rewilding Europe. "Kulan are also social creatures, forming well-structured herds – this helps the animals defend themselves against predators."

While this program is focused just in the delta area, Rewilding Europe hopes to continue with kulan reintroductions in other extreme European environments in the future ... saving the world, one wild donkey at a time.