Apart from making me question my suitability for being in this type of country, the incident gave me an even deeper admiration for the mountaineering skills of the animal we had come to see, the Himalayan tahr, Hemitragtzs jemlahicus
Bill Preston, our guide, was a man of few words but a wealth of knowledge about tahr. The wall surrounding the fireplace of his home in Tekapo attested to some 25 years of hunting experience in the form of mounted trophies and stunning photos. Now, as we caught our breath high up in one of the side valleys of the Godly River, he gave us a demonstration of how tahr deal with the sort of slope I had so illustriously failed to traverse. “They use a combination of speed and friction,” he said, leaping across the scree with an agility I would have attributed to someone a lot younger.
A close look at a tahr’s hoof shows how these animals achieve grip on slippery rock faces and narrow ledges, and reveals striking similarities with a mountaineer’s footwear. Like Tricouni nails fastened around the outside edge of a pair of boots, a hard rim of keratin surrounds the hoof, providing a rigid edge for climbing. Inside the rim is a convex pad of spongy tissue that gives optimum friction on smooth surfaces; again, the rubber soles of climbing boots fulfill exactly the same task.
The Himalayan tahr’s home range is the southern flanks of the world’s highest mountains, from the Pir Panjal Range in northern India, through Nepal and Bhutan. There it climbs to altitudes of 4500 m, ranking tahr as one of the world’s highest-living large mammals.
Truly a creature of the lonely places of this planet, a mature bull tahr makes for a very impressive encounter indeed. Standing up to 1 m high at the shoulders and weighing in excess of 100 kg, he displays a magnificent mane in shades of grey and brown, reaching down almost to his knees.
The shape of the head lies somewhere between a calf and a goat. Tahr are related to the goat family, but they lack one typical feature, the beard. Like goats, though, both sexes grow horns. The bull’s seldom exceed 330 mm in length, the nanny’s 200 mm They protrude from the skull about 40 mm above the eyes, and from a stout and stumpy base curve up and back, tapering out quickly into a pointed end.
Early this century, introducing new animal species to New Zealand was as common a practice as clear-felling native bush, and “conserve” a term found only in the Edmond Cook Book. To provide emigrating Englishmen with a fine sporting trophy in their new homeland, the Duke of Bed ford gifted six tahr (three males and three females) to the New Zealand government. After two months at sea and the loss of one bull, the animals were released near the Hermitage at Mt Cook in May 1904.
Eight more tahr from the Duke’s herd were liberated in 1909 in the Mt Cook area, and, ten years later, four were added from the Wellington Zoo—an unnecessary top-up, since by this time the animals were well established, numbering close to 100. Tahr were also released in Rotorua in 1909 and Franz Josef Glacier in 1913, but they failed to establish themselves.
The hunting interests of new settlers gained a further boost with the introduction of chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra) in 1907; this time the gift of Emperor Franz Josef of Austria (after whom the glacier is named). Alpine chamois are native to the European Alps, where they have been a highly prized sporting trophy for centuries.
Two bucks and six does made the journey to Wellington (sustained, we are told, by large quantities of mistletoe) and were subsequently released in the Hooker riverbed, again near Mt Cook. In 1914, another pair were sent, but only the female survived. Apparently, the buck was shot by a guide after it attacked some tourists.
Like tahr, the smaller chamois established themselves without difficulty, growing to a herd of about 100 animals by 1920.
Under legal protection (in place until 1930) both species continued to flourish. As they did, the vulnerable flora of the Southern Alps, which had evolved over millions of years with not an ungulate in sight, suffered a corresponding decline. The animals’ protected status was revoked, but it was too late; a population explosion was under way, and by the 1960 s the Alps’ unique vegetation was being grazed and trampled by a combined force of approximately 100,000 tahr and chamois.
Red deer, hares and sheep had already modified the alpine ecosystems; tahr and chamois merely compounded the damage and extended it to bluff systems which had been inaccessible to the earlier invaders.
The results were devastating. Reports of “well-worn tracks, killing of protective vegetation, erosion and subsequent flooding of the lowlands” established the need for immediate control measures.
Tahr were the main problem. Unlike chamois, which are largely solitary and range widely through the Southern Alps, the gregarious tahr have stayed closer to their point of liberation, and their impact on vegetation has been much greater.
Government agencies—initially the Department of Internal Affairs and later the NZ Forest Service—reacted to the damage by setting the “good keen men” from the deer culling campaigns against tahr and chamois. Many thousands were shot by these ground hunters, but it was not until the advent of helicopter-based shooting in the late 1960 s that tahr were brought under control.
Helicopters allowed both easy access and easy, if dangerous, recovery of the animals. Aerial hunters developed markets for wild venison, and when red deer became scarce turned their attention to tahr. During the peak years of 1972 to 1974, it was not uncommon for helicopter operators to recover 100 tahr carcasses a day for processing as “roe deer.”
Bill Preston had been around in those days, when the silence of the mountain tops was frequently ruptured by the thudding tattoo of helicopter rotors and the quick repetition of semiautomatic rifle fire. He told us that tahr learned pretty smartly to distinguish between the sound of a fixed-wing plane and the helicopter’s rattle, which signaled immediate danger.
“Even the flight pattern of the animal changed,” says Bill. “While it would normally try to outrun any potential two- or four-legged enemy by a swift set of uphill leaps, it had to think of a new strategy to outsmart a shooter positioned in a highly mobile piece of flying machinery. The new flight tactic was similar to that of schooling fish. When chased by a predator, they dart off in all directions.”
Chamois learned new tricks, too, including freezing motionless, hiding for extended periods among rocks or clumps of tussock, preferring forested areas and emerging into the open only at night.
It was only a matter of time before the great herds of tahr, with 50 animals or more in a single group, were a story of the past. During the 1970 s and early ’80s at least 40,000 tahr 90 per cent of the population—and an unknown number of chamois were killed.
The relief to our alpine flora and fauna was considerable. Tall snow tussock recovered in areas where it had been grazed to ground level, and famous alpine flowers such as the giant buttercup or Mt Cook lily bloomed again from chewed-down rhizomes.
In 1983, with the tahr population down to a couple of thousand and anxious trophy hunters afraid that a respected quarry was about to disappear, the Minister of Forests stepped in and imposed a moratorium on commercial hunting. Numbers immediately started to increase at a rate of about 20 per cent per year, and today, despite vigorous recreational hunting and a small amount of government culling, there are probably between 10,000 and 14,000 tahr, and the population is still increasing.
(Because of the broad area they cover and the fact that large numbers live in forests in West land, chamois numbers are much more difficult to estimate. There are probably at least 30,000, making chamois the third most common wild ungulate in the South Island, after red deer and goats.)
What to do with the remaining tahr herd has been a subject of much agitated controversy. “The tahr issue is the sharpest point of difference between us, the Deerstalkers Association and the Department of Conservation,” says Kevin Smith, conservation director of the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society. “New Zealand has an international responsibility to maintain the health of our endemic species for the simple reason of genetic diversity, while we are under no obligation to uphold a herd of feral animals. We regard the tahr as an introduced mountain goat, and therefore we would like to see it eradicated.”
The Deerstalkers Association and many other non-affiliated recreational hunters appreciate the tahr’s presence in New Zealand, and believe that a mixture of hunting and harvesting (with additional government culling as required), would keep numbers manageable and limit the impact on the alpine environment thus suiting everybody.
The hunting lobby stresses the importance of the New Zealand tahr herd as the only sizable population outside of the Himalayas. They also ask how long a species has to be in a country before it becomes a legitimate part of that country’s fauna. Pukeko have been here perhaps 1000 years, and they are regarded as indigenous. The wild horses of the Kaimanawas have existed as a distinct herd for less than 150 years, and they are now protected under the Wildlife Act. What about tahr? What about chamois? (What about possums, ask conservationists. Touché!)
The Department of Conservation, which has the final say, has opted for control of tahr rather than eradication. The Minister, in his forward to the national tahr control plan released in December 1993, set out DOC’s rationale for tahr management by stating: “If there were no tahr in New Zealand I would not support their introduction into the wild. Therefore, if it was possible, eradication would be the preferred option for the Department.”
Ken Hughey, protection manager for the Canterbury conservancy, expands on this thought: “Our job is dictated by the Wild Animal Control Act and the Conservation Act. Under that legislation we are obliged to protect resources such as plants and wildlife from impacts such as browsing tahr. But the eradication of tahr is neither a financially viable, nor a practically achievable option. So while some despise them and others value them, we tolerate them.”
The question is, how many are tolerable?
In some areas (the National Parks and areas outside their present range) DOC says no tahr are tolerable. In other areas the Department will rely on hunters to keep numbers below set thresholds, based on the animals’ impact on vegetation in the area. An initial maximum of 10,000 animals has been set.
Some groups still argue for eradication, but, simply stated, the complete removal of any well-established species from the New Zealand mainland is not practical. Even clearing rats, possums and goats from small islands has proved to be an enormous logistical battle. DOC estimates that controlling tahr at the margins of its present range costs up to $500 per animal.
DOC says that what is required is not just a vendetta against tahr but an integrated plan that considers all the species impacting alpine environments—a “multi-species mountain land management plan.”
John Parkes, a scientist with Landcare Research who helped draft the 1993 tahr plan, outlines the concept: “Chamois, tahr, hares and possums can all be found in the alpine region. These species meet each other for the first time in New Zealand, yet they behave as though they’ve evolved here together, and, like ungulates on the Serengeti Plains in Africa, they partition their food supplies to lessen competition. We need to get a better understanding of the diet preferences, breeding ranges and rates of dispersal of each of these species, because what’s the point of having tahr management if the same plants are eaten by other species as well?”
Already, comparisons of the diets of tahr, chamois and possums have revealed distinct preferences. Tahr eat mainly grasses, chamois mainly shrubs and herbs and possums different shrubs, more herbs and fruit when it is available.
Tahr are undoubtedly the better climbers in the alpine environment, moving higher and into more demanding terrain than chamois do, yet their breeding range covers only 7000 square kilometers of the central Southern Alps, while chamois roam over 50,000 square kilometers from Nelson to Fiordland.
John Parkes believes that the reason tahr have not moved as far from their liberation point as chamois have is in the different social systems the two animals. Tahr are more gregarious, and females in particular will only move from their natal areas when pressure of numbers forces them to do so. Chamois are less social, and Colin Clarke of Land care Research has shown that many animals of both sexes are vagrants who make annual crossings of the Main Divide, choosing the milder western side during winter and the drier eastern side during summer. Chamois are also less restricted to alpine habitats, so lowland areas are not the barriers to dispersal that they are for tahr.
Chamois, like Tahr, are related to goats, although their more graceful lines give them the look of an antelope. They are smaller than tahr, and the bucks and does are much more similar in appearance than tahr males and females. A mature bull tahr, for example, is a solid hunk of raw power, with the stance and swaggering gait of a bear, and can weigh nearly twice as much as a nanny of the same age, but even nanny tahr are stouter than chamois.
“Chamois remind me of a ballet dancer, while a bull tahr is more like a front row forward,” says Gordon Roberts, who has spent the best part of 30 years stalking, studying and photographing these animals.
The daily routine of both animals is revolves around feeding and resting. Around the middle of the day, tahr will be found resting and chewing their cud, often well above the vegetation line among outcrops of rocks and bluffs as high as 2250 m. Mid to late afternoon sees them descend, feeding as they make their way down towards the tree line, which they reach around dusk. Here they remain until the next morning, when they have a further concentrated burst of feeding before ascending to their high-altitude resting places.
A hunter knowing these movements will obviously save himself a lot of clambering around and that was probably the reason for Bill Preston to recommend a breather as we struggled up a steep gully in the Hall RangeGazing through a powerful set of 10×50 binoculars, which performed in an irritating fashion in unison with my pounding heart, I could make out a mob of about twelve tahr. Bill had spotted a bull amongst them, and thought it worth our while to have a closer look at the animal
“Any bull that can keep a harem of 10 or more females has to be a fairly big animal,” he said. “Chances are, he’ll probably be five years or even older and have a nice set of horns on him.”
Slowly, we made our way up the mountain, setting off little avalanches as we crossed the scree, rocks hurtling down into the gullies, the echo bouncing off the sheer cliffs on the opposite side. According to Bill, this sort of noise didn’t matter much, as long as it was a natural sound, appropriate for the environment we were in.
A strong, cold wind started to come up, and through speeding shreds of low cloud, I saw a second bull. Staunch as a medieval knight, with legs firmly placed at the edge of a towering rock, his attention was directed across to the other side of the gully, where his counterpart was posing in an equally impressive manner. The hair of his entire mane stood on end, almost like a porcupine’s quills. He was trying to intimidate his competitor by sheer size, making quite clear that the harem belonged to him.
It seemed to work, as the knight didn’t move. Then, with an outstretched muzzle and a head-raised “lip curl” he started inducing the females to urinate. This he does so he can sample the urine for the onset of oestrus.
The bulls themselves have a pungent smell of urine during the mating season, as do chamois bucks. Overt aggression between the males of both species is rare. Mostly, they are content to posture, although the occasional chase takes place. Rare head-to-head combat between two bull tahr takes the form of a violent pushing match, and ends when one manages to topple the other. Long belly scars have been observed on some bull tahr, possibly the result of a swipe of the victor’s horns before the vanquished animal has made good its escape.
As we crawled the last few metres to a ridge, more and more heads started to pop up. Rocky humps suddenly started to move and disclosed themselves as members of the mob. The composition of the herd was characteristic for this late autumn day: about 12 females, some with last year’s offspring at foot, and mingling amongst them the two-year-old bulls. These immature bulls will form their own distinct bachelor group next season and join the mature bulls in their fourth year.
Groups of mature bulls, mostly between five and ten animals, start to form around September and will stay together until the next mating season in April. The rut congregates the two sexes again, but only the bull with the best intimidation techniques will mate with the females.
The rut lasts from late May to mid-July (a month earlier for chamois) and the females give birth to a single kid between November and January. A nanny ready to give birth will usually leave the mob and seek solitude in the cover of some scrub.
After the birth the female immediately consumes the placenta and starts grooming the newborn. Within a few minutes the kid will struggle to its feet, and within a day it will be following its mother around without great difficulty.
Like most juvenile mammals, young tahr are a lot of fun to watch. They are like spring lambs playing “king of the castle,” but on precipices that would give a human mother a heart attack. Michael Midgley, a hunter in Tekapo, told me the story of a tahr kid he once caught and brought home to rear. “The main struggle was keeping up with the ability of the little bugger to jump fences,” he recalled. “It wouldn’t have been much more than two weeks old when it could jump a one-metre fence, and once, in a dark room where we put the deer to quieten them down, that little fellow jumped straight up a two-metre timber wall to do some acrobatics on the roof trusses.
“Another time I was driving a mob of sheep down the main road with the little critter behind me, walking along the white lines in the middle of the road. A car, stuck in amongst the sheep, was also partly on the white lines, and without the slightest hesitation he jumped up on the bonnet, walked over the roof, hopped off at the back and continued walking along the lines.”
You insured?”asked the farmer, shooting a sly glance at us from beneath bushy brows. He and a mate were tinkering with the pitch of his helicopter blades, using a pair of vice grips and a hand-held strobe light. This was Goodwin McNutt, one of New Zealand’s “grand old chopper men,” and we had just arrived at his farm near Springfield, in the foothills of the Canterbury high country.
Goodwin was trying to tune his machine, and needed a couple of extra passengers (“ballast” was the word he used) to get the weight right.
In for a penny, we thought, and hopped in, while Goodwin started flicking switches, jabbing buttons and muttering, “If she doesn’t explode in the first 30 seconds we’ll be OK.”
The banter was purely theatrical. Goodwin was one of the early hunter pilots in New Zealand and has an impressive pioneering record: the first landing on Mt Cook and the first live capture of red deer, to name only two.
Now he runs the first tahr farm in the country. He has about 60 animals, and the venture is part of a Lincoln University research programmer on the viability of tahr farming for meat, down fiber and trophy animals.
In the culling days of the ’70 s, tahr meat was exported, mainly to Germany. Farming is an extension of the same concept, much as deer farming grew from the popularity of wild venison. As with deer farming, pioneering the venture has not been easy.
“It cost me three years and $3000 just to get permission to move the animals here, and I was fighting bureaucracy all the way,” he says. “I’ll be 65 next year, and I don’t know if I want to keep up the struggle.”
If the regulations on moving tahr out of their feral range are relaxed, there are at least half a dozen others who are keen to pick up the idea of tahr farming, convinced that the game market will take all they can supply. Farmed chamois is out of the question, though—the animals do not settle to domestic life.
“As a farm product, tahr have some limitations,” says Alastair Nicol, a Lincoln University lecturer who has made an extensive study of the prospects for tahr farming. He believes that the high cost of setting up a tahr farm currently outweighs the income from the low meat gain per animal.
The fine down growing underneath the heavy coat of guard hair also has limited revenue potential. “It has a fibre diameter of 14-16 microns, which puts it into the category of cashmere fibers, but as well as being slightly shorter than cashmere, the yield per animal is very low. To make an adequate return, even at a value of $100/kg, a farmer would have to run about 5000 tahr to produce 500 kg of down.”
Live bull tahr sales to safari hunting parks, where a client can part with $5000 to shoot a trophy bull, looks like the most lucrative option, but that market is limited too—perhaps 50 males per year
New Zealand’s first safari park, on Lily bank Station, was set up in 1981 by Gary Jolt, a farmer and a hunting guide with international experience. He believes Lily bank proves the viability of the game park concept for New Zealand, and says he earned a financial return far in excess of that of the traditional high country station during his years as manager.
But he believes the only way hunters and conservationists will see eye to eye on tahr and chamois is when the herds are managed as an economic resource, not as a noxious intruder. “Game management overseas is a science,” he says. “It’s all about manipulating the population to achieve the optimum number of males and females. Here the management is nonexistent. A hunter wants a big bull tahr and that’s all he will shoot. The result? No big bull tahr left, and no reduction in population. Overseas they have a tag fee, and I’ve suggested that we adopt the same idea in New Zealand—say, a $500 premium for shooting a bull, a stipulation that you have to shoot 10 females before you can shoot a male. If we had that kind of intensive management here, recreational hunters could keep the population under control and everyone would be happy.”
Managed or not, hunting a trophy tahr bull in the wild is an exhilarating experience—witness the number of books and magazine articles 311 the subject. Says Gary Joll, “A big gull can take you into some tremendously difficult mountain country. :’s not so much man against animal man against mountain.”
There are some 40 registered lilting guides who include tahr d chamois on their list. Most ide “outside the wire” in what are tied fair chase operations, although several offer a hunt inside an losure, for those who want to the deck in their favor. An estimated 1200-plus tahr are ,n by all forms of hunting each year—insufficient, according to DOC, to lower the population to the threshold density of 10,000 set by the management plan.
Many of the clients are foreigners (it’s a lot cheaper to hunt these animals in New Zealand than it is in their homelands), and they spend about $0.5 million on tahr hunting alone. As well as paying between several hundred and several thousand dollars for the hunt (the price depends on length of time, type of accommodation and cost of transport) they will pay $600-$700 for a shoulder mount or $2000 for a full-body mount of the trophy.
I have never been one for shooting an animal just for its horns or tusks, and pulling the trigger on one of those majestic creatures I was staring at was far from my mind. Bill Preston agreed: “A lot of guys like myself have thrown the rifle away. Just being there is the name of the game these days.”
Lying in the freezing cold, we turned our attention back to the tahr. We watched helplessly as the mob decided to head for even higher ground. Five minutes later, the whole herd appeared again on a distant ridge.
It would have taken us half a day to get there.