Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Vanishing Species - Nilgiri Tahr

An Article by Mohan Pai

Nilgiri Tahr
(Nilgiritragus hylorcrius)

Uncontrolled hunting & poaching had brought the tahr to the point of extinction.

Nilgiri Tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius) is an ungulate living in the ranges of Western ghat mountains of Kerala, most of them are seen in Eravikulam National Park. They are also found in small groups at Nilgiri hills, Siruveni Hills , Elival Mala, Nelliampathi Hills, Top Slip & Parambikulam, Eastern Slopes of Ananmala, Grass hills of Anamala, Swamaimala …etc. Nigiri Tahr is declared an endangered species in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Mammals with surviving number estimated just below 2000 animals. It is also called Nilgiri Ibex and ‘Varayadu’ in Malayalam and nicknamed the ‘cloud goat’because it is often seen moving in and out of mist, fog and cloud. They can climb steep rocks easily. Adult males are much larger and darker in color than females , weigh about 100 kilograms and measure 100 centimeters at shoulder high when fully grown up. Both males and females have horns which are bigger in males at about 40 centimeters. They move in small groups and prefer to graze in high grasslands of Rajamala and adjoining mountains.

Physical characteristics

Male: A fully grown male Nilgiri tahr stands about 100 cm at the shoulder and weighs about 100 kg (Schaller, 1971). The overall coloring is a deep chocolate brown. This is particularly dark almost black on the front of the fore- and hind legs, the shoulder, the side of the abdomen, side of the face and the front of the muzzle. This contrasts sharply with the white facial stripe which drops from the forehead towards the corners of the mouth just anterior to the eyes, the white carpal patches on the front and outside of the forelegs, and the silvery saddle. The side of the neck where it meets the shoulder is also sometimes lightened as is the flank posterior to the saddle, and an area around the eye. Long black hairs form a mane and mid-dorsal stripe. The horns (in both sexes) curve uniformly back, and have twist. The outside and inside curves are constant. The tips diverge slightly due to the plane of the horn being divergent from the body axis posteriorly, and tilted slightly so as to converge dorsally. This means that the tips continue to diverge the more the horns grow. The inside surface is nearly flat, and the back and outside are rounded. There is a distinct rib where the inside and front of the horns meet and the horn surface covered with numerous fine crenulations amidst the more slightly more evident annual rings. The horns of males are heavier and longer than those of the females reaching a maximum length of about 40 cm.Female: Female Nilgiri tahr are shorter and slighter than their male counterparts. In contrast to the striking pelage of the male, the female is almost uniformly gray. The carpal patch is black against this light background. The facial markings are present, but only faintly, and the area around the eye and the cheek below it are brown. The mane and mid-dorsal stripe are also present, but much less conspicuous. The horns are slimmer and shorter, reaching a maximum length of about 26 cm.


The Nilgiri Tahr's domains are the hills of Southern India, ranging from the Nilgiri to the Anamalais and thence southwards along the Western Ghats. The Nilgiri tahr prefers open terrain, cliffs and grass-covered hills, a habitat largely confined to altitudes from 1200 to 2600 m. Their habitat extended far and wide all along these hills in the past, but hunting and habitat destruction have decimated them to such an extent that they now exist only in a few isolated sites - the Nilgiri hills, the high ranges in Central Kerala and the Anamalai hills about 100 Kms to the South and some pockets in the Southern tip of the peninsula. The ancestors of the tahr are supposed to have originated in the later stages of Pleistocene period, which ended 10,000 years ago. Forests covered much of the plateau in the past, with grasslands only in boggy hollows and on steep slopes. Annual fires during the dry seasons in January and February and grazing by domestic buffalo belonging to the original inhabitants, pushed back the forests slowly until only patches of it remained when the first Europeans looking for areas to plant tea reached these areas in the early years of the 19th century.


According to reports, the Tahr appears to have roamed at will in vast herds all over the grassy uplands of the higher plateau of the Nilgiris. By the closing years of the 19th century, uncontrolled hunting and poaching had however, reduced the tahr to such an extent that their numbers probably did not exceed a hundred. But survive they did - on the perilous western edge of the plateau, an area remote from human habitation where the huge cliffs and inclement weather naturally protected them. Some 1500-2000 Nilgiri Tahrs now survive.
The Nilgiri Tahr is a grazer needing a constant supply of food. They enjoy the grasslands that hug the rocky cliffs above 1200 metres. But they also prefer the sholas which they share with, elephant, gaur, sambar and barking deer. For most of the year they live in segregrated groups. Adult males live in bachelor herds and the females and young in separate groups. Only during the breeding season (June-September) do the two groups mix. The gestation period is six months. If a female’s offspring dies, she quickly conceives again. And probably it is this ability that has played a vital part in the survival of this species.

Pic by Dhaval Momaya

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