The kiang is not a well-known animal. They’re found in a relatively small area of Asia that’s not easily accessed by people, so it hasn’t been widely studied. In fact, scientists know relatively little about this equine that’s also known as the Tibetan wild ass. Although they’re a bit of a mystery in the west, they’ve still made an impression, and some believe they’re part of the inspiration of an enduring myth.

What is a Kiang

Kiangs are the largest breed of wild ass. They measure an average of 55 inches at the withers and can be up to 84 inches long. Their coat is their most distinctive feature. The bottom of their bodies are white, while the upper part is covered in a short, reddish-brown coat during summer. In the winter their coat is thicker, longer and dark brown. They also have a dark stripe that runs from their mane to the end of their tail.

In the wild, kiangs live for around 20 years. They’re not often found in captivity, although the Beijing Zoo and Knowsley Safari Experience have small populations. In captivity, they generally live for 30 years. Their call is similar to a donkey’s, as heard in this video of two kiangs playing:

Where to Find a Kiang

Kiangs make their homes in the plateaus and steppes of the Himalayan Mountains in China, India, Pakistan and Nepal. They prefer dry, open regions between 13,000 and 23,000 feet in elevation. Because they live in areas that are not well-suited to agriculture or human habitation, they aren’t considered at risk of extinction. However, this may be changing as the growing livestock population needs to forage farther to find food.

The kaing’s presence in this harsh landscape has influenced their diet. They eat grass and grass-like plants known as sedges when they’re available, but during winter they eat herbs, shrubs and even roots they dig from the ground. Water is also rare in the area, and scientists believe they get most of their water from their food and possibly snow in the winter.

The Life of a Kiang

Mating season for kiangs is between July and August, and mothers give birth to one foal. Their gestation period is believed to be around 300 days, which means foals are born in summer when food is plentiful. Females and their babies travel in herds of up to 400 animals, while mature males are generally solitary. Apart from humans, the kiang’s only known predator is the wolf. When wolves attack, a herd forms a defensive circle and use their powerful legs to kick at the predators, so it’s normally solitary animals that are in danger. Kaings are generally nocturnal and feed during the night. Observers have also noted that they seem to enjoy swimming in rivers over the summer months.

Kiangs and Travelers

Although kiangs aren’t found in modern popular culture, in the past they did make their way into the accounts of people who traveled through the region. The Dalai Lama’s brother, Thubten Jigme Norbu, and Japanese monk Ekai Kawaguchi have each published observations about the kiang. The earliest known account came from Greek historian Ctesias who lived in the fifth century B.C. He wrote about a large, swift and powerful wild ass with a white body and red head. He also described the horn on its forehead. This was the introduction of the unicorn to western culture, and some believe the kiang was one of the animals that inspired the myth.

Although the kiang population has decreased in places close to human settlements, they continue to thrive in areas where they don’t compete with livestock. With so many of these magnificent equines roaming the mountains, we still have an opportunity to observe and expand our knowledge of the kiang.