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Tuatara: Volume 13, Issue 2, July 1965

Introduced Ungulates in New Zealand — (c) Chamois

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Introduced Ungulates in New Zealand
(c) Chamois

Chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra L)

Prized as a Sporting Animal in their native Europe, chamois were introduced to New Zealand in 1907 in order to provide good hunting, especially for tourists. Chamois increased rapidly in numbers and distribution and at present occupy most of the alpine country in the South Island. At first they were protected, but their rapid build-up in numbers and effect on their habitat caused concern resulting in the removal of protection in 1930. Large numbers are at present killed annually.

Systematic Position

According to Simpson (1945) the chamois belongs in the Order Artiodactyla, Family Bovidae, Subfamily Caprinae, Tribe Rupicaprini. However, Couturier (1938) recognises the Rupicaprinae as a subfamily. The Tribe Rupicaprini contains the following five genera: Rupicapra (Chamois), Nemorhaedus (Goral). Capricornis (Serow), Oreamnos (Mountain Goat), and Budorcas (Takin). The chamois belongs to the monospecific genus Rupicapra Blainville, 1816. (rupes — rock, capra — goat) and species rupicapra Linnaeus, 1758. The synonymies of the genus and of the eleven sub-species recognised are listed in Ellerman and Morrison-Scott (1951, pp. 397-398). The sub-species which has been introduced into New Zealand is probably Rupicapra rupicapra rupicapra (L.) which has endemic distribution in the central European Alps.

The number of common names applied to Rupicapra rupicapra include: camoix, quamoix (ancient French), gambsthier (Swiss-German), tesamo (Swiss-Roman), camozz (Tirol), gaems, gamz, gembssen (ancient German), ghemse (German), and gems (Dutch). The common name ‘chamois’ is almost universally applied throughout New Zealand.

Chamois have not been successfully introduced anywhere other than to New Zealand.

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Chamois are similar in appearance to goats, but have longer legs, a more erect neck, pointed ears, and differ in shape and curvature of the horns (Fig. 1). Adult males have a shoulder height of up to 36 inches. Adult males do not often weigh over 100lbs, while adult females seldom exceed 801bs. The overall colour of the coat varies seasonally, and while there is considerable variation between individuals, tends to be brown to almost black in adult males in winter to a brownish fawn in summer. A dark strip extends along the mid-line of the back from the neck to the base of the tail. On the ventral surface and hindquarters the brown colour is lighter in summer, becoming almost white. The head is pale fawn in colour with a dark band beginning near the nose, surrounding the eyes and ending at the base of the horns and ears. The colour pattern of the young is generally lighter than that of the adult. The hooves, which reach a length of three inches in adult males, are similar to those of tahr. There is a soft central pad surrounded by a hard rim.

The horns, carried by both sexes, are the most characteristic feature of the chamois. Growing upwards from the head they are almost vertical, curving near the end to form sharp posterior hooks. The horns diverge at the point where they curve, often considerably in the female chamois. The male chamois have heavier horns than the female. As with tahr the horns are measured from the base to the tip along the outside of the curve, and the circumference of the horn at the base is also usually measured (Douglas, 1959). A good pair of trophy horns are those over ten inches in length; an exceptional pair may exceed fourteen inches.

Chamois have a well developed sense of smell and very good eyesight. As discussd in a previous article on tahr (Christie and Andrews. 1964), chamois appear to rely on their eyesight for warning of any disturbance. The alarm call is a sharp whistle, often accompanied by the stamping of the forefeet; normally chamois are silent. Young chamois may bleat occasionally. Chamois are particularly agile in rough, broken country and are seldom defeated by the steep bluffs which they climb, often at remarkable speeds (Christie, 1964).

Chamois have a postcornual gland which swells and is active during the period of the rut. These glands are present in both sexes, and those of the male secrete a strong odoriferous substance. Couturier (1938) suggests that in males the secretion of the glands serves as an indicator of the whereabouts of males.

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Native Distribution

Chamois are found in all the higher mountain systems of central and southern Europe. Amongst them are: the Pyrenees, Jura Mts., Swiss Alps, Carpathians, Pennines, Transylvannian Alps, Rhodope Mts., Dinaric Alps, Caucasus Mts., and sections of the Anatolian Plateau. Chamois are more common in Switzerland and Austria (Baillie-Grohman, 1901). The remains of fossil chamois (mostly Quaternary) have been found in a large and continuous areas extending over northern Spain, much of France, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary. Italy and the whole of Switzerland. The chamois is carefully protected in Europe and only limited numbers are allowed to be shot each year.

Many colourful legends have been woven round the chamois. Phillipps-Woolley in Baillie-Grohman (1901) records an old belief whereby the chamois will hang over ledges by the crook of its horns to avoid being seen. Baillie-Grohman (1896) quoted a passage from Fouillous writing in 1573, ‘At any time the Ysarus (chamois) desires to scratch its thighs, it sticks its claws in so hard that on account of their being reversed it cannot withdraw them, and thus it falls from cliffs and breaks its neck.’ Valuable medicinal properties were once ascribed to the blood of the chamois and the bezoar stone (a phytoconcretion found in the gut) also had much vaunted healing properties.

Fig. 1: Adult female chamois on Mount Cupola, Nelson Lakes National Park. N.Z. Forest Service Photo by J. H. Johns, A.R.P.S.

Fig. 1: Adult female chamois on Mount Cupola, Nelson Lakes National Park. N.Z. Forest Service Photo by J. H. Johns, A.R.P.S.

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Introduction to New Zealand

The first enquiries about the possibility of the introduction of chamois were made in 1888 by Sir Julius von Haast and G. M. Thomson. The following year a sum of money was made available by the Government for the cost of shipping chamois to New Zealand. However, no chamois were introduced at this time, probably because of the difficulty in procuring animals (Thomson, 1922). In 1907, as the result of a chamois drive in Austria, eight chamois were selected and transported to New Zealand. The eight consisted of two males and six females (two of which were carrying young), all aged between two and three years. After a period of quarantine the chamois were released near the Hermitage. Mount Cook.

A later introduction was made in 1914 when three tame chamois were shipped to New Zealand from Austria. One died on the voyage out and the remaining two were liberated in the Mount Cook region.

The chamois quickly adapted to their new home. Donne (1924) records that in 1908 Graham saw a herd of chamois accompanied by young in the Mount Cook area, and later in 1913 he saw a herd of thirteen. In 1917 twenty chamois which appeared to be in good condition were seen in one herd, close to the point of liberation. By 1919 seventy were seen in one herd and by 1920 Thomson (1922. p. 61) was able to record, ‘The flock is increasing fast and the animals are in very fine condition, herds of thirty, forty and seventy being noticed at one time.’ Yerex (unpublished report, Department of Internal Affairs, 1934) reported herds as having reached Mount Brewster, near Haast Pass, in the south, and Hope Pass in the north. Present distribution is shown in Fig. 2.

Riney (1955) has recorded that chamois have spread a greater distance from the point of liberation than any other introduced ungulate in New Zealand. Caughley (1963), in discussing the dispersal rates of several introduced ungulates shows that chamois have dispersed from Mount Cook at an average of 5.4 miles per year, considerably faster than any of the other ungulates he investigated. Chamois are probably still actively colonizing suitable ranges, especially in the Fiordland region.

Social Characteristics

As with tahr, the chamois billies (adult males) usually separate from the nanny (adult female) and juvenile herds when they become fully mature adults at two to three years old. The rutting period appears to be later than for red deer, taking place during May and June. During the winter chamois are confined to steep bluffs where snow does not accumulate or to the scrub belt which may be extensive on the western slopes of the Southern Alps.

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Chamois prefer swards of shorter grasses, preferably with rocky outcrops nearby where they shelter during periods of bad weather.

Young are born in December and January. Asdell (1946) gives the gestation period from 153-210 days. Usually one kid (young chamois) is born although Briedermann (1962) reports that in Austria twins are not uncommon. Even shortly after birth the kids have great agility, and in most cases show no difficulty in keeping up with the parent.

Although there are a number of predators of chamois in their native habitat, there is no predation of chamois in New Zealand,
Fig. 2: Map showing distribution of chamois in New Zealand (compiled from information provided by the N.Z. Forest Service).

Fig. 2: Map showing distribution of chamois in New Zealand (compiled from information provided by the N.Z. Forest Service).

page 110 other than by man. The precipitous nature of their habitat does, however, lead to a number of accidents, and avalanches probably claim a number of victims.

Parasites and Disease

Chamois have frequently been found in New Zealand in a diseased condition. The ‘blindness disease’ (kerato-conjunctivitis) of chamois in Europe was first recorded in New Zealand in 1936 in the Mount Cook area. Since then six further outbreaks have been reported in chamois. Outbreaks of the viral disease, contagious ecthyma, have also been reported in New Zealand amongst chamois and tahr. The first recorded outbreak was in 1940 and eight other outbreaks have been traced (Daniel and Christie, 1963).

Damalinia alpina, a louse ectoparasitic of chamois, has not been recorded in New Zealand, although a louse which is almost identical to D. longicornis (usually found on red deer) was recovered from a chamois. Four genera of trichostrongylid nematodes were recorded from the abomasum, (Stadelmannia, Trichostrongylus, Spiculopteragia and Nematodirus); Oesophagostomum venulosum and Trichuris ovis (Nematoda) were recorded from the caecum.

Management and Economic Value

Chamois were protected by the Animals Protection and Game Act (1921-1922) but this protection was removed in 1930. The Department of Internal Affairs which was responsible for the necessary control measures began operations against chamois in 1936. Since then chamois killed by Government shooters total 68.878. There have been no control campaigns using poisons aimed specifically at chamois. It is certain, however, that chamois have been killed by ‘1080’ poison in operations that were primarily conducted towards the control of red deer. Private shooters have killed an unknown number of chamois.

As with tahr, chamois have little economic value apart from being a prized trophy animal for hunters. Skins of chamois are best taken when the animal is in the full winter coat; at other times the hair is shed rapidly after curing. The meat is palatable, in Europe particularly it is considered a gourmet's dish, but this is most probably due to the difficulty to obtaining it rather than to its intrinsic qualities.


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

Baillie-Grohman, W. A., 1896. Sport in the Alps, in the Past and Present. London, Adam and Charles Black, 356 pp.

——, 1901. The Chamois in Big Game Shooting. Phillipps-Wolley, C., Vol. II, 2 ed. London, Longmans, 77-93.

Briedermann, von. L., 1961. Untersuchungen über das Gamswild im Elbsandsteigebeit. Z. Jagdwiss 7(4): 139-166.

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

Christie, A. H. C., 1964. A note on the Chamois in New Zealand. Proc. N.Z. Eco. Soc., No. 11. pp. 32-36.

——, and Andrews, J. R. H., 1964. Introduced Ungulates in New Zealand (a) Himalayan Tahr. Tuatara, 12 (2): 69-77.

Couturier, M. A. J., 1938. Le Chamois. Grenoble, B. Arthaud Ed., 855 pp.

Daniel, M. J., and Christie, A. H. C., 1963. Untersuchungen über Krankheiten der Gemse (Rupicapra rupicapra L.) und des Thars (Hemitrogus jemlaicus Smith) in den Sudalpen von Newseeland. Schuieiz Arch. f. Tierheilk., 105 (1): 399-411.

Donne, T. E., 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.

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

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

* New Zealand Forest Service, Wellington.

Zoology Department, Victoria University of Wellington.