Chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra)

Also known as: Alpine chamois, Balkan chamois, Northern chamois
Spanish: Gamuza, Gamuza Septentrional
GenusRupicapra (1)
SizeHead-body length: 90 – 130 cm (2)
Tail length: 3 – 4 cm (2)
Shoulder height: 76 – 81 cm (2)
Weight24 – 50 kg (2)

The chamois is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1). Seven subspecies are recognised; two of these have been assessed as part of the European mammal assessment. Rupicapra rupicapra tatrica (the Tatra chamois) is classified as Critically Endangered (CR) and Rupicapra rupicapra cartusiana (the Chartreuse chamois) is classified as Vulnerable (VU) (1).

The chamois is an agile and graceful animal (2), adapted to cold, highland terrain (3). Its winter coat consists of thick, woolly underfur and long guard hairs, suited to conserving heat in its chilly alpine habitat, and the somewhat elastic pads of the hooves provide reassuring grip on uneven and slippery ground (2). The winter coat is blackish-brown, with a white patch on the rump and white to yellow facial stripes (3), while in spring and summer, this is shed for a lighter tawny-brown coat of short, stiff, coarse hairs (2). Both male and female chamois bear slender, black horns. Measuring up to 203 millimetres, the closely set horns rise almost vertically from the forehead and then bend abruptly backwards to form hooks (2).

Occurs in mountain ranges of south-central Europe and Asia Minor, including the Alps, Carpathians, Balkans, and Caucasus, where it occurs as seven subspecies. The chamois has also been introduced to New Zealand (2) (3).

During the spring and summer months, chamois inhabit alpine meadows, generally above altitudes of 1,800 metres and never more than a few hundred metres from the safe refuge of cliffs. In autumn and winter, chamois can be found at lower altitudes, often below 1,100 metres, where they stay on steep slopes where snow does not accumulate, and sometimes enter forests (2).

The nimble chamois are well suited to the harsh terrain of the mountain ranges they inhabit. They are prodigious runners, capable of reaching speeds of 50 kilometres per hour on uneven ground, and daring leapers that can jump almost two metres in height and at least six metres in length (2). While in the summer months, chamois can feed on a relatively plentiful diet of herbs and flowers, during winter they turn to lichens, mosses and young pine shoots, and are able to survive for up to two weeks without food when snow blankets any sources of sustenance (2).

Female chamois with their young generally live in herds of 15 to 30 individuals. Herds are believed to post ‘sentinels’ that warn the other members of the herd of any danger by stomping their feet and calling with a high-pitched whistle. Adult males live on their own for most of the year, but join the herds in late summer, in time for the autumn rut. During the rut, often in November, old, strong males drive the younger males away from the herd, and occasionally kill them (2).

Following mating, and after a 170 day gestation period, females separate themselves from the herd to give birth in May and June. Females usually bear a single kid, giving birth in a shelter of grass and lichens. The kids are able to follow their mother immediately after they are born and are weaned after just two to three months. While female kids may remain with their mother’s herds, young males leave the herd at the age of two or three. They then have a nomadic existence until they reach full maturity, at the age of eight or nine, when they become attached to a definite area (2).

With the exception of the Alpine chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra rupicapra), many other subspecies of the chamois are rare and many populations are declining (4). Such declines are due to a combination of factors. The flesh of chamois is prized by some people, the skin is made into shammy leather for cleaning glass and polishing cars, and winter hair from the back is used to make ‘gamsbart’, the brush of Tyrolean hats (2). This has led, in some areas, to excessive hunting (2), and poaching remains a threat to many populations, particularly outside of protected areas (4). Habitat loss is impacting some subspecies, such as in Albania where suitable habitat is being lost to expanding human populations, as is competition with domestic livestock. Hybridisation with the Alpine chamois poses a threat to a number of the subspecies and sarcoptic mange (a skin disease) is also a problem in some regions (4).

The Critically Endangered Tatra chamois (R. r. tatrica) and the Vulnerable Chartreuse chamois (R. r. cartusiana) face many of the threats mentioned above, which are compounded by their small populations and limited distribution. The Chartreuse chamois is restricted to a 350 square kilometre area of the Chartreuse massif, at the western edge of French Alps, where an official census in 1986-87 estimated the population to consist of a minimum of 150 individuals. Only two populations of the Tatra chamois remain; one in the Tatra National Park, Poland and Slovakia, and another introduced population occurs in the Low Tatra National Park, Slovakia. Such small populations are vulnerable to natural disasters, disease, and a loss of genetic diversity (4).

While the chamois is, as a species, still common, a number of the subspecies are threatened and require conservation action. The Chartreuse chamois has, since 1972, been the focus of conservation measures, beginning with efforts to educate local hunters. The hunters formed a Chamois Management Unit and together implemented measures including a shooting moratorium, lasting several years, and limiting livestock grazing on upland pastures. The efforts were a success, with the population multiplying by five between 1985 and 1997, but the population still faces threats, particularly hybridisation with the Alpine chamois (5).

The Critically Endangered Tatra chamois is protected by law in Poland and Slovakia, and occurs solely within two national parks, each of which includes an area in which public access is strictly controlled to eliminate any disturbance during winter and during the birth season. Control of sheep grazing in Tatra National Park led to an increase in population numbers, but more recently numbers have again declined, possibly due to poor weather conditions and poaching (4).

Although not so greatly threatened, the other five subspecies are subject to varying hunting laws and legal protection, occur in numerous protected areas, and some, such as the Balkan chamois and Carpathian chamois, have been successfully introduced to further areas (4).

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  1. IUCN Red List (July, 2014)