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Sanctuaries Established to Help Save Spectacular Kashmiri Goat

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Human greed is being blamed for the near-extinction of the spectacularly spiral-horned markhor (Capra falconeri cashmiriensis) in the northern Indian state Jammu and Kashmir. The critically endangered goat has faced years of population decline from illegal trophy hunting, competition with livestock for habitat and other man-made threats. The subspecies is now down to its last 300 to 400 individuals.

There is some good news for the markhor, though. Four parks already maintain small, protected populations of the rare goats, and a fifth was announced on April 27. Officials have yet to say how many markhor will be protected in the newly established, 66-square-kilometer Tatakuti Wildlife Sanctuary.

But critics say protecting a small population may not do much to help the markhor as a whole. “Declaring a protected area is just the starting point and not the end of the crusade of conservation,” Intesar Suhail, wildlife warden with the Shopian Wildlife Division told the Indo–Asian News Service (IANS). He says the existing national and state laws that protect the goats need better enforcement.

Unfortunately, enforcing those laws could create conflict with people who have decades or centuries of tradition on their side. The nomadic Bakkarwals herd their livestock into the markhor’s protected areas every spring, pushing the endangered goats out and forcing the animals to graze in less suitable areas. State Forest Minister Mian Altaf Ahmad told IANS that local herders “have their rights. You cannot deny them those.”

Suhail suggests that alternative grazing areas or other ways of making money be provided for the herders to keep them out of the markhor’s habitat.

Other than this competition for resources, their habitat in Kashmir faces increasing fragmentation, as new roads and other development further separate small subpopulations. Fences along the disputed Kashmir border have also disrupted the markhor’s movement.

Illegal hunting for trophies and meat also remains a threat. Hunting markhor is legal in Pakistan, which controls part of Kashmir, and U.S. trophy hunters have reportedly paid $65,000 to $80,000 for permits from the Pakistani government.

Not everyone agrees that that Kashmir’s markhor is its own subspecies. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recognizes three markhor subspecies but not the Kashmiri subspecies. The IUCN Red List of Endangered Species does categorize all markhors as “Endangered,” with fragmented populations and declining habitats throughout their range in India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The mountain-loving animal thrives at elevations of up to 3,600 meters above sea level. The IUCN estimates the total world population for the entire markhor species at less than 2,500 mature individuals.

Photo of a markhor (Capra falconeri) by Ron Dunnington via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license

John R. Platt About the Author: Twice a week, John Platt shines a light on endangered species from all over the globe, exploring not just why they are dying out but also what's being done to rescue them from oblivion. Follow on Twitter @johnrplatt.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Markhor 6:37 pm 05/16/2012

    The picture is of a captive markhor (Capra falconeri heptneri). The particular subspecies is the most endangered of the three recognized subspecies. Recent analysis in Tajikistan place the animal at less than 400. It is also found in the Kugitang reserve in Turkmenistan. The Tajik, Turkmenian or Heptner’s markhor is known for a corkscrew shaped horn. The Kashmir markhor has more flaring horns that are more open in the spiral. The Pakistan Sulaiman or Straight horned markhor has tightly curled horns that resemble a curled spear. Overall there are probably less than 3000 markhor left in the wild. In captivity, only the heptneri subspecies is represented enough to contribute to its preservation. While fragmented populations are difficult to preserve without genetic loss, the markhor has the reproductive ability to rebound quickly if given the protection it deserves.

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  2. 2. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 7:56 pm 05/16/2012

    Good eye. Thanks for the extra information on the other subspecies! (I had to use this photo — none were available for the Kashmir subspecies!)

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  3. 3. Markhor 5:34 am 05/17/2012

    Its a good article as it highlights the plight of the Kashmir subspecies. The question of subspecific division in the species is one which, I think, has not aided in the conservation efforts. For example, the USFWS does not name the status of the Heptner’s markhor at all. At the subspecies level, the Kashmir, also called Pir Panjal markhor, is lumped with the Astor markhor of the Gilgit region. But the Kashmir “type” is actually geographically separated in many areas. A population of the type is present in Chitral region of NW Pakistan as well. The troubling part is the isolation of small populations or groups. Governments need to take a more active role to realize the benefits of conserving the markhor. In some areas where the markhor is protected and monitored, deforestation has slowed and the snow leopard has returned as well.

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  4. 4. Bret Newton 2:17 pm 05/17/2012

    The recent Groves and Grubb taxonomy gives evidence that some populations of Markhor are actually hybrids with feral goats.

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  5. 5. brynnscott 3:08 pm 05/17/2012

    I have 2 questions – 1) is the wool usable? I am wondering if harvesting of the wool could become a viable living for some people and thus induce them to protect the herds. 2) there are some wonderful wildlife conservation areas in the US, The Wilds in Ohio comes to mind. have there been any attempts to establish captive breeding populations outside of central Asia and the Indian subcontinent?

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  6. 6. Quanta-HIS 2:37 am 05/18/2012

    Very informative article. Thanks.

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  7. 7. Markhor 6:50 pm 05/22/2012

    To Bret Newton; this is somewhat correct. Manceau, et al., identified evidence of hybridization of markhor with wild goat in the Chiltan wild goat, but this was based on one museum sample; generally C. aegagarus chiltanensis is considered a subspecies of wild goat. Several authors have noted a hybridization event in the background of C. f. heptneri that are in captivity. It is thought by some authors that this is a very old event, perhaps even millenia old based on the position in the cladogram built from this research. Others may point to a recent hybridization. Phenotypically the markhor in captivity look no different than pictures seen of Tajikistan markhor, although I have not had the opportunity to view the pictures of markhor from the Turkmenistan population. A more thorough investigation, requiring samples from the wild needs to be done. Certainly, we today face the possible hybridization from incursions of domestic flocks into markhor territory, especially given 1) the decline in populations; and 2) the habits of markhor in being a low altitude wild goat (compared to ibex) bringing them in contact with domestic flocks.
    To BrynnScott: I am not a good judge of wool. On the face of it I can see no special quality to the wool but I have to wonder if the markhor played some role in the ancestry of the Pashmina goat, or other Pakistan type wool producers. There are currently a few, but not many zoos involved in markhor conservation. They are not a “popular” species with most large zoos.

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