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Tuatara: Volume 12, Issue 2, July 1964

Introduced Ungulates in New Zealand — (a) Himalayan Tahr

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Introduced Ungulates in New Zealand
(a) Himalayan Tahr

General Introduction

This is the first of a series of articles in which it is intended to review the more important introduced ungulates. Each article will deal with one species and include its systematic position, description, present distribution, history of introduction, subsequent dispersal and present economic position in New Zealand.

Tahr (Hemitragus jemlahicus)

The Himalayan Tahr was introduced to New Zealand some 60 years ago primarily for the purposes of sport. Apart from a small herd in England this was the first time tahr had been liberated outside their native range, but they quickly adapted themselves to their new home and their numbers increased rapidly. Although they have not dispersed as far as chamois, which were liberated in the same area a little later, tahr occupy an important part of the Southern Alps, extending from the Landsborough River in the south to the Waimakariri River in the north. Prized as a trophy by sportsmen, tahr have nevertheless increased to such an extent as to cause damage to the alpine flora, resulting in increased erosion and soil loss. Since 1937, attempts have been made to control them, initially by shooting and later by poisoning.

Systematic Position

Simpson (1945) placed the Tahr in the Order Artiodactyla, Family Bovidae, Subfamily Caprinae. He divided the Subfamily Caprinae into four tribes with the genus Hemitragus Hodgson, 1841 placed in the Tribe Caprini.

Three species of Hemitragus are recognised: Hemitragus jemlahicus (Smith, 1827) (Himalayan Tahr); H. jayakari Thomas, 1894 (Arabian Tahr); and H. hylocrius Ogilby, 1837 (Nilgiri Tahr).

Hemitragus jemlahicus is in turn divided into two sub-species: H. jemlahicus jemlahicus (Smith, 1827), and H. jemlahicus schaeferi Pohle, 1944.

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Further, H. jayakari seems to be closely related to H. jemlahicus and could possibly be regarded as a sub-species of it (Ellerman and Morrison-Scott, 1951).

There are two different spellings of the specific name in use. Some authors (e.g. Donne, 1924; Wodzicki, 1950; Riney, 1955) use the form jemlaicus. Others, (Lydekker, 1913; Simpson, 1945; Ellerman and Morrison-Scott, 1951) refer to the specific name as jemlahicus. However, H. jemlahicus was first described by Smith under the name Capra jemlahicus Smith, 1827 (although printed correctly under the plate it was misprinted jemlanica in the text), and thus the spelling jemlahicus is the correct form. The specific name is taken from the Jemla Valley, north of Nepal. The incorrect spelling, jemlaicus, dates from Gray (1847).

The common name of H. jemlahicus varies considerably, including Tehr, Tahir, Jharal, Jehr, Jula Kras and Thar or Tahr. Although Riney (1955) and Anderson and Henderson (1961) use the name ‘Thar’ most authors refer to it as the Himalayan Tahr or just Tahr (Lydekker, 1913; Wodzicki, 1950; Ellerman and Morrison-Scott, 1951; Bourliére, 1955). Banwell (1962) concludes after some research that ‘tahr’ is correct.


The animals are similar in appearance to large goats, with adult males measuring up to 40 inches at shoulder height. Occasional mature adult males are over 300lb, while mature adult females weigh much less, seldom more than 80lb. The face is long, narrow and straight. The head of an adult male is short-haired while the body-hair is long, particularly on the neck and forequarters, and forms a mane almost to the knees. The hair of the female is much shorter and generally similar to that of the domestic goat. The under side of the tail is bare, and the knees and chest often have callous pads. The colour is reddish or dark brown, usually darker in males. The mane is often lighter in colour than the rest of the body-hair, especially towards the end of the winter. A more or less distinct dark dorsal stripe is present. Young animals are more uniform in their colouring, which is greyish brown, and kids are considerably lighter than the adults (see Figs, 1 and 2).

Face glands and foot glands are usually absent, although vestiges of the foot glands in the hind feet occasionally occur. The inguinal gland is also absent but a nuchal gland is present (Davidson, 1963). There are four teats present but, contrary to Riney (1955), only the posterior pair appear to be functional (Anderson and Henderson, 1961).

Horns, present in both sexes, are slightly larger in males than females. The horns nearly touch at the base, curve and diverge backwards, and approach again at the tips. They are compressed, page 71 flattened on each side with the front edge forming a sharp keel. The lateral surfaces of the horns show annual growth rings. According to Anderson and Henderson (1961) no rings are formed in the first winter but are added aubsequently each year between September and November. Tahr horns are measured from base to tip along the outside of the curve; basal measurements are usually taken also (Douglas, 1959). Good specimens range between 11 to 14 inches long. Anderson and Henderson (1961)
Fig. 1: Tahr herd and habitat (headwater of the Rangitata River, Havelock Branch, April, 1963). N.Z. Forest Service Photo. J. H. Johns, A.R.P.S.

Fig. 1: Tahr herd and habitat (headwater of the Rangitata River, Havelock Branch, April, 1963). N.Z. Forest Service Photo. J. H. Johns, A.R.P.S.

page 72 give measurements of an exceptional specimen obtained in New Zealand with a length of 14½ inches.

The hooves are particularly well adapted to rough terrain. The pad is soft and slightly convex, and is surrounded by a hard rim. This is similar to the hoof of the chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra) which occupies similar terrain to the tahr, but differs from that of the mountain goat (Oreamnos americanus) in which the hard rim is shorter, the pliable convex pad extending beyond the hard outside edge (Brandborg, 1955).

The tahr's senses of smell and hearing are both well developed but, like the chamois, tahr appear to rely more on their exceptional eyesight. The voice is a high-pitched whistle used only for alarm calls. Young kids bleat occasionally, in a similar fashion to chamois kids.

Native Distribution

The distribution of the genus Hemitragus includes the ranges of the Himalayas, the Nilgiri, Anamalais, Western Ghats and some other south Indian ranges, and the mountains of south-eastern Arabia.

The Himalayan Tahr is found in the middle ranges of the Himalayas from Pir Punjal mountains, Kashmir, Punjab, Kumaon, Nepal and Sikkim. The type locality is the Jemla Hills, Nepal. Tahr inhabit rough rocky ranges up to 14,000 feet (Donne, 1924), although Bourlière (1955) states that they live by preference in the forest and rocky places under 10,000 feet.

There are only a few herds outside their native habitat including: the New Zealand herd; a herd of about 30 animals at Woburn, England; and a herd of about 50 living on Table Mountain, South Africa, the progeny of animals which escaped from the Pretoria Zoo some 30 years ago.

Introduction to New Zealand

In 1904 the Duke of Bedford gave the New Zealand Government six tahr selected from his herd at Woburn. Donne (1924) records that the Duke intended to send eight animals but two escaped just prior to shipment. These six tahr, three of each sex (although in an appendix Donne states that there were 2 males and 4 females) left England in April, 1904, and reached Wellington by the end of May. During the voyage one male escaped and was lost overboard but the remainder were in good condition when they arrived, and after a quarantine period were liberated in the Mt. Cook area. In 1909 the Duke of Bedford presented New Zealand with a further eight tahr (six male and two female) and these animals were also released near Mt. Cook. Donne (1924) records that three more (adult male, female and a young female) page 73 were released by the Government Tourist Department in the Lake Rotorua district, but these did not become established, while in 1911 another three (one male and two female) were liberated at Waihou on the West Coast. Thomson (1922) states that three tahr were liberated on the Franz Josef Glacier in 1913 but these are probably the same animals which Donne recorded as released at Waihou. In 1919, four tahr were obtained from the Wellington Zoo and released on the Sealey Range where tahr were already established.

Fig. 2: A rare photograph of a bull tahr (headwater of the Rangitata River, Havelock Branch, April, 1963). N.Z. Forest Service Photo. J. H. Johns, A.R.P.S.

Fig. 2: A rare photograph of a bull tahr (headwater of the Rangitata River, Havelock Branch, April, 1963). N.Z. Forest Service Photo. J. H. Johns, A.R.P.S.

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Tahr quickly became acclimatised and by 1913 were recorded in numbers on the Sealey Range and by 1918 in the main range (Thomson, 1922).

Tahr have dispersed from their liberation point to occupy a substantial part of the Southern Alps, as shown in Fig. 3. At present a continuous population extends from the Hopkins Valley in the south to the Wilberforce Valley in the north. There are a number of occurrences of tahr outside the boundaries (Fig. 3), but these are usually wandering bulls and do not give a true indication of the main population distribution. Caughley (1963), in discussing dispersal rates of several of the introduced ungulates, reports that tahr spread from their liberation point at the rate of 1.1 miles per year. Of the dispersal rates of the nine species listed by Caughley, tahr have the second fastest, being exceeded only by chamois.

Social Characteristics

For most of the year the bulls (adult males) usually mob together living apart from the nanny herds (adult females, immature bulls and kids). The sexes mix during the rut (end of April, May and June) when the bulls pair off with mature nannies — the relationship, in general, is monogamous. After the rut, the distribution is determined by snow, which is lower at this time of year. Tahr descend and seek the cover of rocky outcrops and other sheltered places in bad weather. As the weather improves in spring the herds gradually make their way back up to the summer pastures.

Young are usually born in December. Asdell (1946) reports that tahr in their native habitat rut during December, and young are usually born the following June or July, with a gestation period of 180 days, whereas Anderson and Henderson (1961) for the New Zealand tahr give approximately 220 days. Usually only one young is born, but there have been reports of twinning (Anderson and Henderson, 1961). Tahr do not live much more than 20 years in captivity, and in the wild probably considerably less. Anderson and Henderson estimate that 80% of all young die by the end of their third winter. No predators of tahr other than man occur in New Zealand, but a number of deaths are probably due to accidents owing to the extremely rugged terrain which tahr occupy.

Parasites and Disease

Chamois and, less commonly, tahr have been found diseased or blind in the Southern Alps. One cause is pinkeye (Kerato-conjunctivitis); the eyes become white and the disease causes page 75
Fig. 3: Distribution of tahr in New Zealand. Shaded portion of inset shows location of map.

Fig. 3: Distribution of tahr in New Zealand. Shaded portion of inset shows location of map.

page 76 temporary or permanent blindness. It was first recorded amongst tahr on two bulls shot in 1961 in the Dunstan Range, Southland, (approximately 44 miles south of their normal range) and has been fairly frequently recorded amongst chamois since 1936.

Contagious ecthyma (scabby mouth), also found in chamois and sheep, afflicts tahr in New Zealand. Symptoms include festering wounds and scabs on the mouth, palate, udders and feet. It first appeared among the tahr herds in the Murchison Valley area in 1940, and has since been recorded amongst tahr in the Mt. Cook area in 1943, Ben Ohau Range in 1959, and the Upper Rangitata in 1961 (Daniel and Christie, 1963).

The total effect of these diseases on tahr populations is probably light. Generally the severity of the diseases seems less amongst tahr than amongst chamois although no data have been collected to substantiate this.

Tahr carry a small host-specific mallophagan louse (Damalinia hemitragi). Cummings (1916) first described the female louse from a tahr in the gardens of the Zoological Society of London, and both male and female have been recorded from tahr in New Zealand (Andrews, MS.). No further records are known to the writers.

Nematode parasites recorded from the tahr are: Oesophagastomum venulosum and Trichuris ovis (the whipworm) from the caecum, and trichostrongylids from the abomasum and small intestine. Both O. venulosum and T. ovis also occur in sheep, some of which were present in the area (Godley Valley) where these parasites were found in tahr.

Management and Economic Value

The Animals Protection and Game Act, 1921-22, lists tahr as a protected animal but this protection was removed in 1930 because of the apparent damage caused by these animals on the vegetation. It was not until 1937 that the first Government operation against tahr was conducted, 2,765 animals being killed. Government operations against tahr have been undertaken almost every year since then and over 24,500 animals have been killed by shooting. In 1960, the first poisoning operation against tahr was carried out in the Tasman watershed using sodium monofluoroacetate (compound 1080). Private shooters have killed an unknown number of tahr since protection was removed.

Apart from being a trophy animal for sportsmen, tahr have virtually no economic value; only a few animals are skinned, and opinions vary as to the palatability of the meat, ranging from excellent (Anderson and Henderson, 1961) to that of Colonel Markham (quoted in Jerdon, 1874) who states ‘The flesh of the female is tolerable; that of the male scarcely eatable at any time’.

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Anderson, J. A., and Henderson, J. B., 1961. Himalayan Thar in New Zealand, New Zealand Deerstalkers' Assoc. Spec. Bull., 2, 37 pp.

Asdell, S. A., 1946. Patterns of Mammalian Reproduction. New York. Comstock Publishing Co., Inc., 437 pp.

Banwell, D. B., 1962. Tahr or Thar? F.M.C. Bull., No. 13.

Bourlière, F., 1955. Mammals of the World. London. Harrap and Co. Ltd., 223 pp.

Brandborg, S. M., 1955. Life History and Management of the Mountain Goat in Idaho. Idaho Dept. Fish Game, 142 pp.

Caughley, G., 1963. Dispersal Rates of Several Ungulates introduced into New Zealand. Nature, Vol. 200 (4903): 280-281.

Cummings, B. F., 1916. Studies on the Anoplura and Mallophaga, being a Report upon a Collection from the Mammals and Birds in the Society's Gardens. Proc. Zool. Soc. Lond., 273-276.

Daniel, M. J., and Christie, A. H. C., 1963. Untersuchungen über Krankheiten der Gemse (Rupicapra rupicapra L.) und des Thars (Hemitragus jemlaicus Smith) in den Südalpen von Neuseeland. Schiweiz. Arch. J. f. Tierheilk., 105(7): 399-411.

Davidson, M. M., 1963. Review. N.Z.J. For.

Donne, T. W., 1924. The Game Animals of New Zealand. London, John Murray, 322 pp.

Douglas, N., 1959. The Douglas Score. New Zealand Deerstalkers' Assoc. (Inc), 59 pp.

Ellerman, J. R., and Morrison-Scott, T. C. S., 1951. Checklist of Palaearctic and Indian Mammals. London. British Museum (Natural History), 810 pp.

Jerdon, J. C., 1874. The Mammals of India. London. J. Wheldon, 335 pp.

Lydekker, R., 1913. Catalogue of the Ungulate Mammals in the British Museum. Vol. I. London. Will Clowes and Sons Ltd., 249 pp.

Ogilby, 1837. Proc. Zool. Soc.,:81 (not seen).

Riney, T., 1955. Identification of Big Game Animals in New Zealand. Dominion Museum Handbook. No. 4. 26 pp.

Simpson, G., 1945. The Principles of Classification and a Classification of Mammals. Amer. Mus. J.New York, 350 pp.

Smith, H., 1827. Griffiths Animal Kingdom, Vol. IV: 308 (not seen).

Thomas, 1894. Ann. Mag. Nat. Hist., 6(13): 365 (not seen).

Thomson, G. M., 1922. The Naturalisation of Animals and Plants in New Zealand. Cambridge Univ. Press, 607 pp.

Wodzicki, K. A., 1950. Introduced Mammals of New Zealand. N.Z. Dep. Sci. Industr. Res. Bull., 98: 255 pp.