Featured Creature: Donkey

Photo by Steve Perry

What creatures with iconic ears have allowed humans to expand their horizons, yet are often misunderstood and underappreciated?

Donkeys!

Photo by Western Australian government

Misunderstood

Donkeys are often expected to act like their larger equid cousins, horses, but donkeys have their own abilities and attributes. Unlike horses, donkeys have evolved to live in desert environments. Their secret lies in their digestive tracts, which are built to get 95% of nutrients from inedible plants, meaning donkeys can survive where many other species can’t. 

Their other secret lies in those iconic ears. In the still, mostly quiet desert, donkey ears can hear a fellow donkey call from 60 miles away. To raise the volume, donkeys move their ears towards a particular sound to amplify it. If I’m ever in trouble, I would certainly want a donkey by my side!

On top of their telephone-like capabilities, donkey ears work as a cooling system. Due to the close proximity of the ear’s blood vessels to the surrounding skin, heat that travels through the body gets released once it reaches the ear’s vessels – creating a personal air conditioner.

Photo by Steve Perry

Misattributed

Donkeys have a reputation for being stubborn, and this trait often comes with a negative connotation, but it’s more accurate to say that donkeys are keen observers. Unlike other herbivores, donkeys are more likely to stand their ground rather than run away in the face of danger. They carefully examine situations and will refuse to move if they sense something wrong. Whether they are domesticated or wild, donkeys make decisions for themselves, and they require time to gather information before they make up their mind. On days I’m feeling impulsive, I’ll have to ask myself, “What would a donkey do?” 

Underappreciated

Through activities such as grooming, donkeys demonstrate affection for the members of their herd. They are extremely social, even with other species. Donkeys are often used as guard animals for cattle, sheep, and goats. They enjoy being with horses, too, and have been seen adopting orphaned foals.

For centuries, donkeys have accompanied human families through migration routes and daily household chores. To this day, millions of people rely on donkeys to help with water, wood fuel collection, and transportation. From Europe to Africa to Australia, rural communities view their donkey helpers as part of the family. Sadly, we don’t always treat them as such.

Mistreated: Wild Donkeys in Western Australia

In a region of northwest Australia called the Kimberley, a wild donkey herd lives on a holistically managed landscape called Kachana Station. The owners of Kachana Station have conducted research demonstrating how the wild donkeys have improved the health of the land in the past 20 years. Where the donkeys graze, the soil has improved, plants have returned, and wildfire intensity and frequency have decreased. A major study documented that wild donkeys dig wells, which provide water to many wild animals such as marsupials and birds, and create nurseries for plants.

Unfortunately, the Western Australian government is demanding that the owners of Kachana Station shoot the donkeys in their care, or risk facing major fines. Donkeys are non-native to Australia, so the government sees them as nothing but ‘pests.’ However, it is clear that other wildlife, including native species and plants, benefit from the donkey’s presence.

Bio4Climate has been working with people in Australia to spread awareness for Kachana Station’s valuable ecosystem restoration research. To help us with our campaign, please sign our petition and share with family and friends!