Himalayan tahr (Hemitragus jemlahicus)

Also known as: Kaarth, meshi, taheer
GenusHemitragus (1)
SizeLength: 90 – 140 cm (2)
Male weight: 90 - 100 kg (3)
Female weight: 60 kg (3)

Classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The Himalayan tahr is a relative of the wild goat and is specially adapted to life on the rugged mountain slopes of the Himalayas, extending from the montane to alpine zones (4). George Schaller (1977) describes tahr as “… the quintessential goat…” because it selects the most inaccessible terrain in which to live (3). It has a dense, reddish to dark brown woolly coat with a thick undercoat, keeping it warm in the winter (5). In the spring, as temperatures rise, it loses much of its coat, and becomes lighter in colour. The hooves are also well adapted, making tahr excellent climbers with flexible, rubbery cores allowing them to grip smooth rocks, and hard, sharp keratin rims enabling them to lodge their hooves into small footholds (4). The head is proportionally small, with large eyes, and small pointed ears. Both the males and the females have horns, reaching a maximum size of 46 centimetres, though the females’ horns are smaller in size (2). The horns of the Himalayan tahr curve backwards and slightly inwards towards the body, which prevents serious injury in head butting battles between males during the mating season. The young look very similar to the adults in shape but their coat is uniformly brown and their legs black (5). Adult males are easily distinguished by their pronounced ruff and mane (3).

As the common name of this species suggests, the Himalayan tahr is native to the southern range of the Himalayan Mountains, and is dispersed from northern India east to Bhutan (6). There are also populations in New Zealand, New Mexico, California, Ontario, and South Africa, which were originally introduced for hunting (2). In South Island, New Zealand the species caused major damage to the alpine tussock grasses until the late 1970s, when populations were effectively managed by culling from helicopters (3).

In the Himalayas, tahr inhabit mountainous habitat, commonly between 2,500 and 5,000 metres depending on season and also time of day. In winter they tend to occupy lower slopes, avoiding deep snow and frequenting southern cliffs where the vegetation is more exposed and available for grazing or browsing. In New Zealand they live on grassy mountain slopes and scrubland from 750 to 2250 meters in elevation, preferring the north facing slopes which are sunnier and accumulate less snow in the winter (2).

In the early morning tahr move uphill onto alpine pastures, descending to the refuge of cliffs and scrub forest at night. Adult males tend to range more widely and independently outside the rutting season (3). Most (70%) of the daylight hours are spent feeding, mainly in the early morning and late afternoon, and resting around midday. Tahr are predominantly grazers, feeding on grasses and herbs, but they do browse the leaves of shrubs particularly when pastures are snow-covered (3).

They live in mixed herds, commonly from several to 15 within a group and occasionally up to 80 or more, depending on the terrain (4) (5). During the rut males, who become sexually mature after two years, compete for mating privileges. These competitive displays consist of two males walking stiffly parallel to each other, with their manes erect, heads down and horns exposed to intimidate each other (2). Usually one of the males will retreat submissively, and it is rare for a display to end with direct horn wrestling. The intensity of such struggles seems to be less than that observed in other species of ungulates (7). Males also display to the females, spending hours strutting in front of them before mating (4).

In the Himalayas the rut lasts from late October to January or even February (7), and in New Zealand from April to July (2); this difference is due to the six month shift in seasons (2). Outside the breeding season, males live together in separate groups and females leave their group in order to give birth after a seven month gestation period (5). Females usually give birth to one offspring per birth, which are weaned at about six months. The Himalayan tahr lifespan is between 10 to 14 years, with females living longer than males, although individuals have been reported to live up to 22 years (7).

In its native range the Himalayan tahr is threatened by habitat loss as people exploit resources (e.g. medicinal plants) in more marginal areas (8), severe competition from domesticated sheep and goats (6) and over-hunting for sport and meat (2). There has been an increase in firearms along mountainous border regions following military conflicts in northern India, which has also contributed to the tahr’s decline (8). In other areas where it has been introduced its populations are doing well but they are often heavily managed and hunted due to the tahr being a prize trophy for hunters worldwide (2). In New Zealand a large population once flourished with a population of 20,000 – 30,000 (7), but the government’s decision to remove introduced species in recent years has caused a decrease in their numbers (5).

There are many Himalayan protected areas where this tahr can be found (9), though difficulties in monitoring and protecting wildlife in these rugged areas makes it hard to judge the status of the species within these parks. There are plans to extend the Great Himalayan National Park’s range and establish the Srikhand National Park as a reserve for tahr (8). Hunting is illegal in these areas, though enforcement activity is minimal (8). Much of the hunting is thought to be carried out by locals with firearms or the military. However, there has been a marked improvement in the attitude of the military towards wildlife in the last ten years, due to conservation efforts, which will hopefully continue and extend into schools and local towns (8). Further research into the ecology of the Himalayan tahr is required in order to define the most effective measures to enhance its future conservation (8).

Schaller, G.B. (1977) Mountain monarchs. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Green, M.J.B. (1993) Nature reserves of the Himalaya and the mountains of Central Asia. Oxford University Press, New Delhi; IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK.

Authenticated (10/03/05) by Dr Michael J.B. Green, Director of Research and Strategy, Broads Authority.

  1. IUCN Red List (December, 2009)