The Maasai donkey as a domensal animal

What do you call animal species living mainly among humans but not kept captive?

Commensal, naturally.

What do you call species which have been selectively bred by humans? Domestic, of course.

What do you call populations of domestic species which live wild? Feral, surely.

But what do you call breeds within domestic species which look like wild animals (e.g., are no longer selectively bred, and remain cooperative with humans on a part-time basis?

There has been no word for this, so how about 'domensal' (domestic/commensal)?

An example is the Maasai 'breed' of the donkey (Equus asinus, file:///C:/Users/Antoni%20Milewski/Downloads/A2-18-2012-Ylmazetal-DomesticatedDonkeys-PartII-TypesandBreeds.pdf and's_use_of_donkeys_for_pastoral_flexibility_Maasai_ethnoarchaeology/links/0fcfd50668ffa4070b000000/The-consequences-of-womens-use-of-donkeys-for-pastoral-flexibility-Maasai-ethnoarchaeology.pdf).

The Maasai donkey is small (average adult female body mass probably about 110 kg, and compared to the Somali wild ass (Equus africanus somaliensis, about 250 kg) and inhabits East African pastoral areas in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. It has the appeal, to naturalists, of a quasi-wild animal; given that no wild ancestor survives (at least in pure form), it is as close as we can get today to a lost member of the original fauna of North Africa.

Pastoralists in East Africa have allowed the donkey to revert to a semi-feral state in ecosystems in which the equid niche is already occupied by the plains zebra (Equus quagga boehmi). By remaining in the vicinity of the encampments, the Maasai donkey avoids competition with its wild relative. Although it is amenable to carrying human baggage (mainly water) in the dry season for a few hours every few days, it goes its own way during the two rainy seasons each year (see Overall, the Maasai make few attempts to herd, feed, control, or protect it.

The Maasai donkey spontaneously gravitates to the corrals in the evenings, to share safety from predators with the domestic bost (Bos taurus/indicus,, the domestic sheep (Ovis aries, and and the domestic goat (Capra hircus, and In doing so of its own accord, it behaves like a commensal rather than a domestic animal.

The Maasai donkey is not utilised by the pastoralists for food (either flesh or milk). Indeed it is taboo to eat this species, the sole value of which is as an intermittent beast of burden. Individuals of the Maasai donkey are owned by individual Maasai women, but no net production is expected in the population because the slow breeding of the donkey, subject to mortality in line with wild rather than domestic species, produces no surplus. The donkey tends not to be traded, because this would gain little profit; the Maasai regard the donkey as neither an investment nor a status-symbol.

The Maasai hardly try to control the reproduction of the donkey, apart from the castration of particularly unruly males. Selective breeding, a criterion for domestication, has been relaxed.

It could be argued that the Maasai donkey, in retaining the reduced brain and relatively short legs of its species, remains a domestic animal because of its previous history of selective breeding.

However, its colouration shows minimal individual variation or domestic influence (e.g. see and, conforming to a wild pattern and lacking the irregular and asymmetrical features so valued by the Maasai in their breeds of bost, sheep and goat. We do not know whether this is a case of 'feral reversion' to the wild-type colouration, or an uninterrupted inheritance of the original colouration of the ancestral species of wild ass.

So, given the above context, which of the following two ways to think of the Maasai donkey is more appropriate?

One is that here we have a wild animal which has been modified mainly by reducing its intelligence and body size to the point that it can be handled by women, without otherwise altering its natural biology in terms of adaptive colouration, foraging ecology, or reproductive behaviour.

Another is that the essential relationship is that the Maasai exploit the donkey for carrying heavy burdens, in return for which the donkey exploits the Maasai for protection from wild predators.

Either way, would it not perhaps be appropriate to include this domensal form of donkey in field guide-books to the mammalian fauna of East Africa?

Anotado por milewski milewski, 17 de septiembre de 2021 a las 04:51 AM


I was struck by the abundance of donkeys in Botswana when I first visited there, which i had certainly not expected. The donkeys are everywhere - about as abundant, if not more so, than cattle!

So it was with this in the background of my mind as I read your excellent piece on the Maasai donkeys. I wonder if there is a similar relationship between rural people and donkeys in Botswana, as the donkeys I saw were all untethered and did not seem to have any sign of ownership, seemingly wandering where they willed.

Anotado por dinofelis hace 3 meses (Advertencia)

@capeleopard Many thanks for your interesting information about the donkey in Botswana. I'd like to find out more about Tswana culture before commenting. However, there is at least one aspect to mention right away. The Maasai and the Tswana are/were both essentially pastoral people, but the donkey is a recent addition in the case of the Tswana. Until the advent of European influence in Africa, Maasailand was the farthest south that the donkey had penetrated from its ancestral origins in North Africa. None of the Bantu peoples who brought bost, sheep and goat southwards to South Africa brought the donkey as well, and this can partly be explained by the susceptibility of the donkey, essentially an arid-adapted species, to disease in humid climates. This means that the Maasai, and presumably also any peoples that they displaced when they occupied East Africa, have probably had the donkey since the start of a pastoral way of life. By contrast, the Tswana, although to some extent economically convergent with the Maasai in the southern area of dry climate in Africa, lacked the donkey until it was introduced by Europeans. More soon...

Anotado por milewski hace 3 meses (Advertencia)

@capeleopard Please see for a start to answering your questions...

Anotado por milewski hace 3 meses (Advertencia)

@capeleopard Here is a reference to the disease problem for the donkey in its southward spread in pre-European Africa:

Anotado por milewski hace 3 meses (Advertencia)

@capeleopard I am still delving, but so far the following differences are clear enough. Whereas the donkey is used exclusively as a beast of burden by the Maasai, it is instead used for draught of wagons, and for riding, by the Tswana. There also seems to be a difference in that Botswana is a Christian country, and the biblical connotations of the donkey may help to explain why a superfluous abundance of the donkey is tolerated by the Tswana. Whereas both the Maasai and the Tswana hold the donkey in low esteem, the former may simply regard the donkey as a mechanism whereas the latter regard it additionally (at least subconsciously) as a symbol of humility. Your thoughts?

Anotado por milewski hace 3 meses (Advertencia)

Thanks for sharing.

I know little of Tswana culture and attitudes to be honest, although I do have to say that as a South African myself, I can confirm that most people in this country (and presumably in Botswana too) are deeply religious. It is very common for people here to practice a syncretic form of Christianity with indigenous traditional beliefs, such as muthi, belief in the guidance of one's ancestors, etc.

While cattle hold a central position in the cultural traditions of many/most South African tribes (mostly as a form of wealth, where men pay a 'dowry' - lobola - to the family of their fiance), I am not aware of any special place that donkeys may hold in their cultures. In my limited personal understanding and impressions, donkeys seem to occupy a very utilitarian position in the region.

Anotado por dinofelis hace 3 meses (Advertencia)

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