HIMALAYAN MOUNTAIN GOATS AND SHEEP

TAKIN

The Takin is an odd-looking cow-goat-like animal with musk-ox-style horns that is found in montane areas of the Himalayas and western China at an altitude of 2000 to 5,000 meters. There are four subspecies: 1) the Mishmi Takin; 2) the Shanxi or golden takin; 3) the Tibetan or Sichuan takin; and 4) the Bhutan Takin. Mitochondrial research shows that takin are related to sheep, its similarity to the muskox being an example of convergent evolution. The takin is the national animal of Bhutan.

Adult takin have a head and body length of 1.7 to 2.2 meters (5.7 to 7.3 feet), not including the stubby 12- to 21-centimeter tail, and stands one meter to 1.3 meters meters at the shoulder. They weigh up 350 kilograms (790 pounds). Their strong horns may reach 95 centimeters (38 inches) in length. Both males and females have horns which grow outward before curbing backward and then upward, sort of like the horns of a musk ox. Females tend to be smaller than males.

The takin rivals the muskox as the largest and stockiest of the subfamily Caprinae, which includes all goats, sheep and similar species. Short legs are supported on large, two-toed hooves, which have a highly developed spur. The chest is deep. The large head is made more distinctive by the long, arched nose, and stout horns that are ridged at the base. Their combination of features has also earned them the nicknames "cattle chamois" and "gnu goat". [Source: Wikipedia]

The takin’s bulky-looking body is covered by a long dense coat ranging from yellowish to grayish. A dark stripe runs along the back. Their thick wool often turns black in color on the underside and legs. Males (bulls) also have a dark face. The legend of the 'golden fleece', searched for by Jason and the Argonauts, may have been inspired by the lustrous coat of the golden takin.

Good Websites and Sources: China.org article on Tibetan animals china.org.cn ;Animal Info animalinfo.org/country/china

Takin Behavior

Takin are found from forested valleys to rocky, grass covered alpine zones, at altitudes of between 1,000 and 4,500 metres above sea level. They graze most actively in the morning and evening, and favor sunny spots upon sunrise. They feed on a variety of leaves and grasses, as well as bamboo shoots and flowers. They have been observed standing on their hindlegs to feed on leaves over 3.1 m (10 ft) high. Salt is also an important part of their diet and groups may stay at a mineral deposit for several days.

Takin live mostly in family groups with around 20 individuals. In the summer groups join together and can be quite large. Ones with several hundred individuals have been observed. In the winter they split up and move to lower elevations and more forested areas. Groups often appear to occur in largest numbers when favorable feeding sites, salt-licks or hot springs are located.

Mating takes place between July and August. Females give birth to a single young every other year. Young takin nurse for about nine months and joins the herd soon after they are born. Adult males compete for dominance by sparring head-to-head with opponents and both sexes appear to use the scent of their own urine to indicate dominance. When disturbed, individuals will give a 'cough' alarm call and the herd will retreat into thick bamboo thickets and lie on the ground for camouflage.

Rather than localised scent glands, the takin has an oily, strong-smelling substance secreted over the whole body. This is likely the reason for the swollen appearance of the face. Due to this feature, biologist George Schaller likened the takin to a "bee-stung moose.” They overlap in range with multiple potential natural predators, including the Asiatic black bear and the leopard and (more seldom) tigers, gray wolves and dholes. Anecdotally, both bears and wolves have been reported to prey on takin when they can, which is likely given the opportunistic nature of those predators. However the only confirmed natural predator of takin is the snow leopard, although mature adults may be exempted from regular predation (due to their size) from that predator. The main predator of takin are humans, who hunt them usually for meat (considered delicious by local people), though secondarily for their pelts. Humans have long since exploited takin's fondness for salt-licks, where they are easily cornered and killed. Takins are likely still occasionally killed. [Source: Wikipedia]

Himalayan Tahr

The Himalayan tahr, or the common tahr, is a large ungulate related to the wild goat and the only extant member of the genus Hemitragus. Sure-footed, with a shaggy, conspicuous mane on their neck and shoulders, they live in the rugged wooded hills and mountain slopes in Central Asia and in the Himalaya in Nepal and from northern Kashmir to China. It spends the summers grazing in high pastures as high as 5,000 meters, then comes down the mountains and forms mixed-sex herds in the winter. It was first identified by Charles Hamilton Smith and included in Cuvier's Animal Kingdom, 1827. The Arabian subspecies lives in rocky, desert areas. [Source: Wikipedia]

The Himalayan tahr is a goat-like animal, with small horns on its heads. It has a small head with large eyes and small pointed ears and red circles on its cheeks. Its hooves have a flexible, rubbery core that allows it to grip smooth rocks, while the hard, sharp rim can lodge into small footholds. The animals are covered with a dense, wooly coat with soft underfur. The flat-sided horns grow upwards and curve backwards and may reach 45 centimeters in length in males and less in females. Unlike its neck and shoulders, the hair on its face and head is relatively short. There are no facial or inguinal glands but the tail contains a large number of glands that secrete a very strong-smelling substance.

Adult Himalayan tahr have a head and body length of 1.3 to 1.7 meters (4.2 to 5.6 feet), not including the stubby six- to 12-centimeter tail, and stands 60 to 100 centimeters at the shoulder. They weigh 85 to 110 kilograms (180 to 230 pounds). Their coats are usually reddish brown. Males are larger and have different coloration and horn structure from the females.

Himalayan tahr are herbivores, subsisting on grass, shrubs, and trees. The graze mostly in the morning and evening and rests in the middle of the day in a quiet, hidden place. The gestation period is seven months, and usually only one kid is born at a time. The young tahr nurses for about six months, and may follow its mother for up to two years. In the wild, tahr can live up to 15 years, though ten years is more typical. Males and females with their young live in separate groups, which join in the mating season. When fighting males lock horns and try to knock each other off balance. Young are born in May and June.

Traditionally, all three species of tahrs were placed in the genus Hemitragus. However, recent genetic studies have shown that the three species are not as closely related as had previously been known . Consequently, it has been recommended moving the Nilgiri Tahr to the genus Nilgiritragus and the Arabian tahr to Arabitragus, thereby leaving Hemitragus for the Himalayan Tahr.

Bharal

The bharal or Himalayan blue sheep, is a caprid found in the high Himalayas of Nepal, Tibet, China, India, Pakistan, and Bhutan. Favoring rocky, alpine zones between the snowline and forests, they are known by a variety of native names including barhal, bharar, bharut (in Hindi), na or sna (in Ladakh), naur (in Nepali) and na or gnao in Bhutan. The bharal is a major food of the snow leopard. The animal was the focus of George Schaller's and Peter Matthiessen's expedition to Nepal in 1973. Their personal experiences are well documented by Matthiessen in his book, “The Snow Leopard”. [Source: Wikipedia]

Adult bharal have a head and body length of 1.1 to 1.7 meters (3.6 to 5.6 feet), not including the stubby 10- to 20-centimeter tail, and stands 70 to 80 centimeters at the shoulder. They weigh 25 to 85 kilograms (55 to 180 pounds). They have large eyes and small, pointed ears. Males are slightly larger than females. The short, dense coat is slate grey in colour, sometimes with a bluish sheen. The underparts and backs of the legs are white, while the chest and fronts of the legs are black. Separating the grey back and white belly is a charcoal colored stripe. The bridge of the nose is dark. The smooth horns are found in both sexes, and splay outwards, ridged on the upper surface. In males, they grow upwards, then turn sideways and curve backwards, looking somewhat like an upside-down moustache. They may grow to a length of 80 cm (31 in). In females, the horns are much shorter and straighter, growing up to 20 cm (7.9 in) long. They also lack many of the black colorations that males have.

Bharal live in small groups and are active in the morning and evening, feeding on grass, tubers and lichens. They are very sure-footed, and move nimbly in rocky terrain, up and down steep slopes and even cliffs. When threatened they stand motionless, their gray coat serving as ideal camouflage in their rocky habitat. Once they have been noticed, however, they scamper up to the precipitous cliffs, where they once again freeze, using camoflauge to blend into the rock face.

The mating season is in October to December . Yiung are born in late June and July . Ewes give birth to a single lamb, which nurses for about six months. The rutting of the male bharal starts in towards late November and continues until mid-January. During the rut male bharal use multiple strategies for mating., namely tending, blocking and coursing.

Population densities in Nepal were found to be 0.9 — 2.7 animals per square kilometer, increasing to a maximum of 10 animals per square kilometer in the winter, as herds congregate in valleys. Bharal are mainly grazers but during times of scarcity of grass they have the plasticity to switch to herbs and shrubs. A high degree of diet overlap between livestock (especially donkeys) and bharal, together with density-dependent forage limitation, results in resource competition and a decline in bharal density. Where they overlap, they are the favored prey of snow leopards and leopards, with a few lambs falling prey to foxes or eagles.

Argali

Argali, or mountain sheep, are a wild sheep that roams the highlands of Central Asia, the Himalayas, Tibet and Altay. They are the largest species of wild sheep. The North American bighorn sheep may approach comparable weights but is normally considerably outsized by the argali. Argali stand 85 to 135 centimeters (2 feet 9 inches to 4 feet 5 inches) high at the shoulder and measure 136 to 200 centimeters (4 feet 6 inches to 6 feet 7 inches) long from the head to the base of the tail. The female, or ewe is the smaller sex by a considerable margin, sometimes weighing less than half as much as the male, or ram. The ewes can weigh from 43.2 to 100 kilograms (95 to 220 pounds) and the rams typically from 97 to 182 kilograms (210 to 400 pounds), with a maximum reported mass of 216 kg (480 lb). The Pamir argali (also called Marco Polo sheep, for they were first described by that traveller), is the largest race on average, regularly measuring more than 180 centimeters (5.9 feet) long without the tail, and less sexually dimorphic in body mass than most other subspecies. The argali has relatively the shortest tail of any wild goat-antelope or sheep, with reported tail lengths of 9.5 — 17 centimeters (3.7 — 6.7 inches).[Source: Wikipedia; Alexander K. Fedosenko and David A. Blank Ovis ammon. Mammalian Species, No. 773, (July 15, 2005), pp. 1 — 15]

The general colouration varies between each animal, from a light yellow, a reddish-brown to a dark grey-brown. Argali from the Himalayas are usually relatively dark whereas those from Russian ranges are often relatively pale. In summertime, the coat is often lightly spotted with a salt-and-pepper colouration. The back is darker than the sides, which gradually lighten in color. The face, tail and the buttocks are yellowish-white. Males have a whitish neck ruff and a dorsal crest and are usually slightly darker in color than the female. Males have two large corkscrew horns, some measuring 190 centimeters (6.2 feet) in total length and weighing up to 23 kilograms (51 pounds). Males use their horns for competing with one another. Females also carry horns, but they are much smaller, usually measuring less than 50 centimeters (20 inches) in total length.

Currently nine subspecies of argali are recognized: 1) Altai argali, (Ovis ammon ammon); 2) Karaganda argali, (Ovis ammon collium); 3) Gobi argali, (Ovis ammon darwini); 4) Tibetan argali, (Ovis ammon hodgsoni); 5) North China argali, (Ovis ammon jubata); 6) Tian Shan argali, (Ovis ammon karelini); 7) Kara Tau argali, (Ovis ammon nigrimontana); 8) Marco Polo argali, (Ovis ammon polii); and 9) Severtzov argali, (Ovis ammon severtzovi).

Some sources classify mouflon as Ovis ammon musimon. However, DNA testing has not supported this. Several subspecies of argali have been genetically tested for mtDNA and one study found that the subspecies Ovis ammon ammon, O. ammon darwini and the urial subspecies, O. vignei bochariensis grouped closely while the subspecies Ovis ammon collium and O. ammon nigrimontana grouped with the urial subspecies O. vignei arkal.

Argali Range and Behavior

Argali range from central Kazakhstan in the west to the Shansi Province in China in the east and from the Altai Mountains in the north to the Himalayas to the south. They are a species of mountainous areas, living from elevations of 300 to 5,800 m (980 to 19,000 ft). In protected areas, the species generally prefers gently sloping areas with soft broken terrain, although ewes with lambs often take up residence in more precipitous areas, characterized by canyons and jagged rocks. In areas where they are extensively hunted (such as Kazakhstan), they are more likely to be found in forested areas. In parts of China and Russia where they compete for resources with numerous domestic stock, Argalis more regularly take up residence in precipitous, jagged areas. Argali may search for regions in the mountains where snow cover is not heavy during the winter, following winds that blow snow off the earth. Rams are generally found at higher elevations more regularly than females and stay at higher elevations longer during the wintertime. [Source: Wikipedia; Alexander K. Fedosenko and David A. Blank Ovis ammon. Mammalian Species, No. 773, (July 15, 2005), pp. 1 — 15]

Argalis live in herds typically numbering between 2 and 150 animals, segregated by sex, except during breeding season. Most populations show large numbers of adult females, comprising more than half of a local population, against around 20 percent being comprised by adult males and a further 20 percent by young argali. Some rams are solitary but most are seen in small herds numbering between 3 and 30 individuals. Females and their young live in larger groups, regularly up to 92 individuals and exceptionally to 200 animals. Migrating herds, especially males, have been reported. Most migration appear to be related to seasonally decreased food sources, though an overabundance of biting insects (especially gadflies), severe drout or fires, poaching by humans and large numbers of domestic livestock may also trigger movements. With their long legs, herds can travel quickly from place to place. Argalis tend to live at higher elevations during the summer.

Argali reach breeding maturity at 2 to 3 years of age. Rutting may occur from October to mid-January, generally lasting longer in lower elevations. In rutting herds, both rams and ewes attack others of their own sex, exerting dominance by ramming each other with their horns. Although such groups engage in lamb-like play, the combat of a pair of mature males is a serious business. The rams slam into each other, with their forelegs up in the air, exerting enough force to be heard up to 800 meters (2,600 feet) away. Often the older males (over 6 years of age), which are also often the largest, end up the dominant ones and younger males are chased off once the ewes are in estrus. Once dominance is established, the top rams begin approaching ewes and smell their urine to determine their receptiveness. The ram then repeatedly approaches the ewe and forceably mounts her. Mating commences around 2 to 3 weeks after the rutting begins. Rams may remain in the company of ewes for up to 1 to 2 months after the rutting period is complete.

The gestation period lasts a little over 160 days. Births occur in late March or April, with a variable number of females being barren. Most subspecies give birth to a single lamb, though in some races twins are not uncommon and even as many as 5 have been born at once. At birth, the lambs weigh 2.7 — 4.6 centimeters (6.0 — 10 pounds). The newborn lamb and mother ewe stay around where the birth occurs overnight and, on the next day, both usually walk together. Lambs often play in groups, jumping up and down together, sometimes being joined by their mothers. Weight gain is often quite fast and the lambs may weigh 10 times their birth weight by their first birthday. Females often attain their maximum mass by 2 years of age, but males appear to continue to grow larger and heavier in their 3rd and 4th years. Milking teeth develop around 3 months of age, with a full set of teeth developing by around 6 months. By the time their teeth develop, lambs are capable grazers and the ewes spot nursing them anywhere from August to May of the following year. Most argali live 5 — 10 years, but are capable of living to 13 years in the wild.

Adult argalis eat 16 — 19 kilograms (35 — 42 pounds) of food a day. The vegetation preferred by the species varies based on elevation and area. In higher elevations, they predominantly eat cereals, sedges and forbs. At mid-elevation habitats, they more regularly feed on bushes and mesophyte grasses. In the lowest ranges and the spurs of deserts, Argalis cereals and sedges again predominant but often of different species than the high elevation ones. In north-central Kazakhstan, sprouts, leaves, flowers and fruits are significant to the diet all year, whereas they appear to be a rare dietary supplement over the rest of the range. Water is needed by argalis, which is rarely a problem for specimens living in high elevation, where melting snow and small waterways are regularly encountered. In drier climes, argali may travel several kilometers in search of water. When available, argali readily consume saline soil.[2]

Although they are locally sympatric with Siberian ibex, the two species have differing habitat and pasture preferences, reducing likely competition. In Tibet, the argali must regularly compete with other grazing species for pasture, including Tibetan antelope, Bharal, Thorold's deer and Wild yaks. Competition is most serious with livestock, especially domestic yak and domestic sheep, with which Argali are frequently forced to intermingle and often catch diseases and parasites from. The main predator of argali are gray wolves, which often exploit harsh winter conditions (such as deep snow) in order to capture the wild sheep, though can and do take specimens of any age or condition year around. Where not locally expirated, snow leopards and leopards are also predators of argali of any age. Eurasian lynx and wolverines may seldomly kill argali to at least the size of winter-weakened ewes. Red foxes and domestic dogs (largely those kept by sheep-herders) will predate lambs. Cinereous vultures, lammergeiers and golden eagles have been observed circling herds of ewes with lambs in a possibly predacious manner and remains of argali lambs have been observed at golden eagle nests. Smaller predators, such as raptorial birds and smaller mammalian carnivores, are attacked by mother ewes but, in the presence of larger predators, the ewes quickly run away with the lambs following them.

Argalis are considered an endangered or threatened species throughout their entire range, due largely to habitat loss from overgrazing of domestic sheep and hunting. As the world's largest sheep, there is a strong lure to gather a trophy specimen among sports-hunters. They are hunted for both their meat and their horns, used in traditional Chinese medicine. Due to this, poaching continues to be a major (and difficultly-managed) problem. Argalis have been expirated from northeastern China, southern Siberia and parts of Mongolia. Populations of predators such as gray wolves and snow leopards have appeared to have been negatively effected by the scarcity of argalis.

Marco Polo Sheep

The Marco Polo sheep is a subspecies of argali sheep, named after Marco Polo. Their habitat is the mountainous regions of Central Asia. Marco Polo sheep are distinguishable mostly by their large size and spiraling horns, which resemble those of North American big horn sheep. Their conservation status is "near threatened" and efforts have been made to protect their numbers and keep them from commercial hunting. It has also been suggested that crossing them with domestic sheep could have agricultural benefits. [Source: Wikipedia]

The Marco Polo subspecies Ovis ammon polii was first described scientifically by zoologist Edward Blyth in 1841.These sheep are also commonly called "Marco Polo's Argali" or the "Pamir Argali.". The sheep are named after the 13th century explorer Marco Polo because he described them in his book The Travels of Marco Polo.

The sheep is particularly known for its long, spiraling horns which have been measured having a span up to 140 centimeters (55 inches). They have the longest horns of all sheep, with the longest individual horn ever recorded measuring 1.9 meter (6.2 ft) and weighing 60 pounds (27 kilograms). Marco Polo sheep horns follow a coil pattern, with the tips pointed directly away horizontally from the head; in spite of this, the tips are rarely broken. The horns have long been a popular attraction for trophy hunters. They begin growing 15 — 20 days after the sheep are born, and their growth in length is most pronounced during the first year. Thickness growth is most noticeable during the first two years.

Mature rams on average weigh 126 kilograms (280 pounds). At the withers, rams grow to approximately 113 centimeters (44 inches) in height and ewes to 100 centimeters (39 inches). The sheep rut in December. Gestation lasts about 160 days, with single births being normal and twins uncommon. A captive ewe once gave birth to five lambs at once, then triplets two years later. Marco Polo sheep have an average life span of 13 years. The horns develop rings each year by which the age of male animals may be determined. Since females do not have horns, however, it is harder to determine their age.

Most Marco Polo sheep live in the Pamir Mountains region adjacent to the borders of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and China. Their elevation ranges from 3,700 to 4,800 m (12,100 to 15,700 ft) above sea level; The subspecies lives mainly in the northwestern part of the Hunza district along the Chinese border, inhabiting the Kilik Mintaka border and the northwestern area of Khunjerab National Park. Marco Polo sheep also inhabit the Wakhan Corridor, along the Afghanistan border. They share much of their habitat with animals such as the Siberian Ibex.

Marco Polo Sheep Behavior and Numbers

The behavior of Marco Polo sheep is similar to other members of the Ovis genus. Marco Polo sheep generally live in small flocks of a few dozen. During the summer, they break into smaller flocks of the same sex. During and after the rut, however, they group together to form larger groups for protection, and to conserve energy. When the rut begins, rams begin to fight for dominance among their flocks; dominant rams then choose their ewes without competition from the losers. Only mature rams (those over 6 years old) fight for dominance, the young will sometimes threaten older males, but never charge them. The mature rams fight by standing next to each other and spinning around, then one steps back and charges. O. a. polii males have been noted to rise up on their hind legs when they clash with opponents, which is not common in lowland sheep and similar to the fighting habits of goats. The males commonly emit grunts while fighting and often chip their horns or break their noses. [Source: Wikipedia]

After dominance has been established, the rams begin to select their ewes. Although Marco Polo sheep rams are known to herd females, during the rut males pair off with females to reproduce. Males will approach a flock of females and smell the urine of possible mates. When smelling the ewe's urine, the males display the Flehmen response to test if the ewe is in estrus. Shackleton calls this phenomenon "lip-curl" and describes it as "...raising the head with the mouth open and upper lip curled back." The ram then splits from the flock to copulate with his ewe and afterward, will often stay with the flock for a month or two.

Wildlife researchers conclude the Marco Polo sheep is under threat of extinction due to widespread commercial hunting. Hunting the Marco Polo sheep first became popular when Mohammed Zahir Shah, king of Afghanistan, hunted and killed a ram in the 1950s. He thereafter declared that the valley in which he hunted be a protected habitat for the sheep as a hunting grounds for Afghan royalty, and it was not until 1968 that an American tourist was allowed to hunt in the reserve. In 2008, it was estimated that American hunters paid an average of $20,000 to $25,000 for an expedition to hunt a Marco Polo sheep.

In 1976, in Khunjerab, the sheep's population was estimated to be 300. This number declined to a maximum of 160 between 1978 and 1981, and declined again to only 45 in 1991. George Schaller of the Wildlife Conservation Society estimated the worldwide population in 2003 as around 10,000, half what Ronald Petocz estimated in his 1973 tour. Their population density has been recorded as fewer than two animals per 1 square kilometre (0.39 sq mi). The Marco Polo sheep was included on the first list of protected species issued by the Afghanistan National Environmental Protection Agency, in June 2009.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated December 2012


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