You might have seen Himalayan tahr in the news recently. You might also have been wondering how you’ve gone your entire life without knowing exactly what a tahr is.
Hunters, conservationists, and backcountry trampers might be familiar with these goat-like animals, but many others have been left wondering.
Well, wonder no more.
Here are 10 of the most asked questions about tahr:
What is a tahr?
Himalayan tahr are large, wild, goat-like animals. They come from the Himalayan ranges of India and Nepal, and are well-adapted to life in mountainous areas with rocky terrain.
Just like goats, they have small heads, pointy ears, large eyes, and horns. The females are smaller in size and have smaller horns.
In winter male tahr (bull tahr) develop a thick reddish to dark brown coat, with a lighter coloured ‘lion-like’ mane.
Bull tahr are highly prized as trophy animals by recreational and commercial hunters.
What are tahr doing here?
Himalayan tahr were introduced to New Zealand at Aoraki/Mount Cook in 1904.
They were brought here and released to provide sport for recreational hunters and have since expanded into neighbouring areas.
With no natural predators, tahr have taken over.
They’ve quickly adapted to our alpine environments and can now be found in large groups (often called mobs) around the Southern Alps.
What’s the problem?
New Zealand’s alpine plants evolved over millions of years in isolation without any large mammals eating them.
Many of our alpine plants have no defence mechanisms (like toxins or spines) to discourage tahr from eating them, which makes them particularly vulnerable to a hungry tahr.
And because tahr can eat the plants, they do eat the plants.
Few of us have probably ever heard of these endemic alpine and sub-alpine plants that form the diet of tahr, but they are a special part of our unique environment.
These include our distinctive alpine wildflowers, large leaved buttercups, alpine daisies, native carrots, speargrasses (which can look like a giant pipe-cleaner with needles growing out of it), and also snow margarites (which is another type of daisy, not to be confused with a snow margarita, which is what Google thinks you mean if you put that in).
These alpine plants may disappear if we don’t protect them because they don’t exist anywhere else but New Zealand; while tahr are introduced.
Tahr graze in groups and keep coming back to their favourite sites, so their impacts can substantially change the composition and structure of the vegetation in these areas. Not only does this affect our native plants, but also the animals that live there, like some of our unique lizards and giant alpine wētā.
But aren’t tahr endangered?
It’s all about location.
Himalayan tahr are not endangered, but they are listed as ‘Near Threatened’ according to the IUCN because their population is declining in their native Himalayan range due to hunting and habitat loss.
It is important that tahr are protected in the Himalayas of India and Nepal, but it’s a very different story here in New Zealand, where they are an introduced species that is seriously impacting our own unique plants and animals.
For example, the scree buttercup which tahr like to eat, is as threatened as the kea.
And once these plants are gone, they’re gone for good.
So tahr just eat plants?
Studies have shown that tahr eat lots of tussock grass, but also alpine shrubs and herbs. And not only do we lose the plants, we lose the habitat our native birds, lizards and insects use for feeding, nesting and shelter. Where they graze frequently and in large numbers, tahr can degrade whole ecosystems.
Tahr also have their favoured plants (like those large fleshy leaved buttercups) so these species will be targeted and are likely to be heavily impacted.
Tahr are very proficient rock climbers and can access sites that are out of reach to other browsers. This means they can eat plants that would otherwise have been safe on steep cliffs and rock outcrops.
High densities of tahr can damage alpine habitats by transforming tall tussocks and subalpine shrublands to a grassy turf or even bare ground.
An example of this is in Zora Creek, where comparison photos show the impacts of tahr.
Some native insects are dependent on a single type of plant, like for example the Speargrass weevil. And specially adapted alpine birds like kea and rock wren also choose this alpine environment as home and rely on intact vegetation for feeding and shelter.
If these plants are gone it has ripple effects for all the creatures that live there – no more Circle of Life. No more Hakuna Matata.
Why are you targeting tahr in national parks?
Our national parks are special.
New Zealand’s national parks contain some of our most treasured wilderness areas and we have a responsibility to protect and preserve them for future generations of New Zealanders.
Plus it’s law.
We’re legally required to reduce tahr populations to the lowest practicable densities in our national parks.
Make no mistake, we’re interested in tahr control, not eradication. Thousands of bulls and other tahr will be left for trophy hunters across 425,000 ha of public conservation land, but in the 148,000 ha of national parks, New Zealand’s native species need to come first.
We are working to over time reduce the size of the tahr population back within the limits of the Himalayan Thar Control Plan 1993. You can read about where this work is at on our website.
Why don’t you collect the tahr meat?
Bull tahr are generally sought after by hunters as trophies, but they can also be hunted for their meat – especially females and juveniles.
Wild Animal Recovery Operations can control and recover tahr, but due to the vast mountainous terrain, it is not always economic to recover and process tahr for meat and there needs to be a viable market.
For us, at this point it isn’t viable to recover the meat when we control tahr due to the terrain and the high extra cost of doing so.
Can’t you just leave it to hunters?
Recreational and commercial hunting was supposed to be the main way tahr would be kept under control.
Unfortunately, numbers have continued to grow beyond what hunting could manage alone, and other forms of control are needed alongside hunting.
To encourage hunters to still do their bit, we leave all bulls outside of the national parks and we leave tahr for recreational hunters in accessible and popular hunting areas.
Irrespective of tahr control work in national parks, there will still be thousands of bull tahr to hunt across 425,000 ha of public conservation land.
And that’s in addition to the large numbers on Crown pastoral leases or private land which is where the vast majority of commercial hunting takes place.
So you’re not eradicating tahr?
Hunting tahr is a special pastime for some, and no one objects to a hunter who wants to take the kids out to teach them how to hunt and collect some wild meat for the dinner table.
We understand that for some of the hunting community, tahr have a special significance. No one is seeking to eliminate the tahr population completely.
Legislation allows for a managed population of up to 10,000 tahr across Crown pastoral leases, private land and public conservation land to co-exist with our native species.
We’re aiming for population control, not eradication. There’s no intention or risk of tahr being eradicated now or in the future, but we do need to meet the objectives of the Himalayan Thar Control Plan 1993.
How can hunters help?
Hunters play a pivotal role in helping us to manage the wild tahr population and protecting our alpine landscapes.
Hunters can use our bull tahr sightings and control maps to check areas where we have mapped thousands of observations of tahr located on public conservation land.
Current maps show where bulls were spotted between July and November last year. We will update these maps as soon as we can. We encourage hunters to use these maps to help plan their next hunt.
Hunters can also report back on any tahr they’ve removed through DOC and Game Animal Council’s Tahr Returns App. This helps us to build a better picture of the role recreational hunters play in managing tahr numbers.
• Website: Find out more about Himalayan tahr
• Himalayan tahr factsheet: Himalayan tahr in New Zealand
• Population monitoring factsheet:
⠀Estimating Himalayan tahr numbers in New Zealand
• Latest population monitoring report:
⠀Estimates of Himalayan tahr abundance in NZ September 2019