The Wild Goats and Sheep of the Caucasus – Conservation in these remote mountain biodiversity hotspots remains a challenge.
This comparatively small area is home to the enigmatic West and East Caucasian tur, the easternmost subspecies of chamois, the bezoar wild goat and the Asiatic mouflon. However, the region is also a hotbed of political and religious strife.
The Caucasus (Fig. 1) consists of two very different mountain systems: The Greater Caucasus, a geologically and geographically distinct mountain range stretching west-northwest to east-southeast for about 1,200 kilometres (750 miles) between the Taman Peninsula on the Black Sea and the Absheron Peninsula on the Caspian Sea; and the 600-kilometre-long (370 miles) Lesser Caucasus range, which forms part of the uplands of eastern Anatolia and northwestern Iran. The two systems run parallel, separated by extensive lowlands; only the Surami Ridge—also known as the Likhi Mountains—in Georgia forms a bridge between the two. Consequently, the animal worlds of these two territories differ, with unique populations of wild sheep and goats.
Western and eastern tur share the entire length of the Greater Caucasus with the much less abundant chamois. Wild goat, or bezoar, occur only on the northern side of the eastern Greater Caucasus chain. The Lesser Caucasus lacks tur but has bezoar and chamois and some scattered Asiatic mouflon populations.
The tur enigma
The tur is the dominant, and only endemic, mountain ungulate of the Greater Caucasus. There, tur numbers now equal or exceed those of all other mountain ungulates taken together—not just in the Greater Caucasus, but in both mountain systems. “Tur” comes from Balkar (a Turkic language spoken by Central Caucasian highlanders) and literally means Caucasian goat; therefore, it is aptly used for both eastern and western forms. (There can be occasional confusion since, in Russian, tur is also used for the aurochs, Bos primigenius, the extinct cattle ancestor.) The two forms—western and eastern tur—also present the most problematic taxonomic question ever since they were named scientifically.
Europeans became familiar with Caucasian tur only during the 18th Century. Subsequently, several tur morphotypes were described as different species: In the Western Caucasus, Capra dinniki (Satunin 1905) and Capra severtzovi (Menzbier 1887); in the Central Caucasus, Güldenstaedt and Pallas described Capra caucasica in 1783; and, in the Eastern Caucasus, C. cylindricornis was described by Blyth in 1841. By the end of the 19th Century, it had become clear that the first two morphotypes were fully sympatric and there was no reproductive isolation between them, so C. dinniki was abandoned, leaving three taxa of indefinite ranking.
In the former USSR and subsequently in the Russian Federation, two main opinions about tur taxonomy dominated: The two-species opinion, which recognizes the western tur, Capra caucasica (Fig. 2), and the eastern tur, Capra cylindricornis (Fig. 3), with a mixed and partly hybrid population between them, east of Mount Elbrus; and the single-species opinion, which recognizes one single tur species, Capra caucasica, with three subspecies: West Caucasian tur, C. caucasica severtzovi; Central Caucasian tur, C. c. caucasica; and East Caucasian tur, C. c. cylindricornis.
This is already grounds for confusion because the first taxonomic opinion describes western tur as Capra caucasica, while the second applies Capra caucasica severtzovi to the same animal and names the Central Caucasian subspecies Capra caucasica caucasica.
To confuse the issue further, Western zoologists like Lydekker and Schaller regarded the western tur as a subspecies of Alpine ibex and considered the eastern tur a separate species. Their opinion was largely based upon external resemblance of adult males of the dinniki morph (western tur) with Alpine C. ibex and Asiatic ibex C. sibirica, especially the long, drooping beard and the scimitar-curve horns with distinct transverse ridges.
There are good reasons why specialists find it difficult to reach consensus on tur taxonomy. First, the tur population east of Mount Elbrus combines morphological features of both western and eastern tur. Second, some features show displacement along the Greater Caucasus chain, e.g., weakening of the spiraling twist of horn sheaths in North Ossetia (Fig. 4) when compared with animals from Dagestan (Fig. 3).
The weakening of the spiraling twist served as a starting point to suggest the existence of clineal variations in tur across its geographic range. (Clineal variation, or cline, means gradual, measurable change of certain morphological features of a species such as the shape of the horn sheath, length of beard, etc.) The shape of the cline of several tur traits—short (western) and long (eastern) sloping parts with a steep and fluctuating middle part, found east of Mount Elbrus—suggests that this is, in fact, a pseudo-cline or a secondary cline (according to E. Mayr) created by a secondary contact and subsequent hybridization. Since there is only one steep part of the cline, contact of just two primary taxa may have occurred, initially separated by one geographic barrier in the Central Caucasus.
The most probable barrier was a mighty glaciation that fluctuated during the Pleistocene Epoch in the region from Mount Elbrus in the west to Mount Kazbek in the east (which partly still exists), where the steep and fluctuating part of the cline occurs. This glaciation could periodically have divided the all-Caucasus tur population into two and created conditions for the evolution of two taxa: eastern tur (C. cylindricornis) and western (C. caucasica) tur. Due to successive compressions and expansions of the glaciation, the barrier was not constant and periods of isolation were insufficiently long. Populations joined periodically (as now), hybridized and did not manage to evolve mechanisms of effective reproductive isolation for generating distinct species. Thus, western and eastern tur can be regarded as semi-species at best.
Even modern methods have failed to clarify the situation. Chromosomal numbers are the same in all Capra. Gene sequence studies provided controversial results showing completely different female and male lineages for the same species, leading to conclusions that almost all Capra are now of hybrid origin.
Summing up: Typical western tur with scimitar-shaped horns and long drooping beards now occur only in a comparatively small area in the West Caucasus (Russia and Georgia), mainly within the Caucasus State Nature Reserve; intermediate tur occupy the area around Mount Elbrus (Russian Federation and Georgia); and typical eastern tur—with horns twisted in the distinct three-quarter curl of an open spiral and short beards—inhabit the remaining part of the Greater Caucasus (Russian Federation, Georgia and Azerbaijan). See Figure 5.
At present, the IUCN Red List follows the two-species opinion—western tur, Capra caucasica, and eastern tur, Capra cylindricornis—but notes that “it is still unclear whether or not Capra caucasica and Capra cylindricornis are two separate species (as followed here), or a single species with geographically dependent variability, or two semi-species with a morphologically intermediate, possibly hybrid population between them.” Hunters usually split tur into three: Western Caucasian, Central Caucasian and Eastern Caucasian.
Tur numbers have fluctuated significantly over time. They rose slowly during the first half of the 20th Century to some 35,000, sank to about 20,000 to 25,000 after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and now are on the rise again. Latest data (Fig. 6) suggest approximately 35,000 eastern and intermediate tur for Russia, Georgia and Azerbaijan, but only 4,000 western tur, most of them in the Russian Caucasus State Nature Reserve.
Distribution of tur along the Greater Caucasus differs due to topography. The northern side of the mountain system, usually called the macro-slope in Russian, is much wider than the southern macro-slope. There are several parallel ridges north of the watershed—from north to south, the Forest, Pasture, Rocky, Side and finally the Main, or Watershed, Ridges. Tur inhabit primarily the Side and Main Ridges and also the Rocky Ridge in Kabardino-Balkaria in the Central Caucasus. The tur range there, and in Dagestan, in the Eastern Caucasus, is approximately 55 kilometres (34 miles) wide. The southern macro-slope is mostly narrow, so the width of tur distribution there (after their disappearance from major sub-ridges such as the Svaneti Ridge following WWII) usually doesn’t exceed 10 kilometres, or six miles, being even more narrow in Eastern Georgia and Azerbaijan (Fig. 5).
Tur is the main and traditional hunting quarry for the peoples of the Greater Caucasus. It still is the most popular among North Caucasian and Georgian peoples, but not among Azerbaijanis. In Dagestan, traditional tur hunting bans in certain areas may have their origins in the totemic status of the animal.
Some local hunters kept horns and skulls in their dwellings, but in North Ossetia, with its strong pagan traditions (which are becoming increasingly popular again), tur heads were often taken to local shrines, which are famous for their skull collections (Fig. 7).
Historically, tur heads and horns were not valued by locals. This changed in the 1960s when, in Georgia, tur horn sheaths fashioned into silver-mounted ornamental drinking vessels became popular. Georgians started buying horns from North Caucasians, and prices rose to some 200 Soviet rubles per pair, which was more than an average monthly salary then.
Tur trophy hunting
Tur hunting was a sport for the rich and the aristocratic, including foreigners who began to visit the Caucasus to hunt already toward the end of the 19th Century. The first state-run outfitters catering to visiting hunters were organized in Kabardino-Balkaria and North Ossetia in the 1950s and ‘60s. After the disintegration of the USSR, new and mostly privately owned hunting outfitters emerged. Today, Azerbaijan permits hunting of East Caucasian tur. In the Russian Federation, all three tur forms (East, Central and West Caucasian) can be hunted legally. Georgia does not allow tur hunting. West Caucasian tur hunts are comparatively rare due to the smaller area and fewer animals.
Tur have a low reproduction rate, usually giving birth to singletons, and poaching (for food and trophies) is the main threat. In Russia, the tur hunting quota should be 3% to 5% of the total population; there are about 27,000 tur in Russia, so some 1,300 animals could legally be harvested annually. In reality, the number of hunting licenses issued is much lower than that, and some licenses go unused.
Tur is the main (legal) mountain ungulate trophy in the Caucasus. Any tur hunt—for the western tur (the kuban) or, in Dagestan, the more abundant intermediate and eastern tur—is physically challenging in the extreme because the terrain lies at altitudes of about 2,500 to 3,500 metres, or 8,200 to 11,500 feet. Campsites are typically near timberline, which occurs at about 2,000 to 2.500 metres (6,500 to 8,200 feet), but this is well below the male tur’s summer and early autumn range. Stalking often requires difficult rock climbing. Tur hunts are more physically demanding than even Marco Polo argali hunts in the Pamirs, the “roof of the world,” in Tajikistan, where the terrain often allows the use of horses or even 4-wheel-drive vehicles.
The easternmost chamois
The Caucasus chamois, Rupicapra rupicapra caucasica (Fig. 8), is the easternmost chamois subspecies. (The Eastern Greater Caucasus is the limit of chamois range.) Its distribution (Fig. 9) is wider but more disrupted and patchier than that of tur. In the Central and Eastern Greater Caucasus, chamois are often absent or scarce within the tur range but occur on peripheral ridges.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, Caucasus chamois were more numerous than tur in the Western Caucasus, but numbers have decreased significantly since then. There are now some 5,500 chamois in the Russian North Caucasus, 3,000 in Georgian Greater Caucasus and maybe 500 or a few more in Azerbaijan—about 9,000 altogether in the Greater Caucasus. This is approximately one quarter of the tur numbers.
The fate of the chamois in the Lesser Caucasus is even worse. Before the Second World War, the subspecies inhabited most of the Lesser Caucasus, but its numbers and distribution gradually diminished due to over-hunting, both legal and illegal. After the war, chamois completely disappeared from the Eastern Lesser Caucasus, in Azerbaijan and Armenia. Only about 500 survive in the Adjara Mountains in southwestern Georgia (Fig. 9). However, since the Caucasus chamois is a forest dweller in many areas, it may be quite undercounted. In general, chamois numbers and distribution diminish eastward along the whole of the Caucasus region, possibly due to the climate becoming drier closer to the Caspian Sea.
The chamois manages to combine controversial traits in behavior: On one hand, it is rather conservative and sticks to familiar home ranges; on the other, it may wander far outside its familiar area to places that are tens of kilometres away from habitats and seem almost totally inappropriate—e.g., to some solitary smaller precipices at the very edge of a ridge just above flatland or low, rolling forested ridges. Caucasian hunters usually consider chamois inquisitive or even “stupid,” as they may approach the sound of a shot.
In the USSR, chamois were considered a rare mammal, but had never been red-listed. Against expectations, it was not included in the latest edition of the Red List of Russia. Chamois hunting was periodically banned in Russia, but now it is legal. In Georgia and Azerbaijan, the chamois is red-listed.
The bezoar, or wild goat
The wild goat, Capra aegagrus (Fig. 10), remained the least-known mountain ungulate in the Greater Caucasus until the 1990s. Thus, in the 1980s estimates of its numbers in Dagestan varied from 50 to 500 or more. Known distribution of the wild goat in the Greater Caucasus is exclusively along the northern macro-slope encompassing Ingushetia, Chechnya and southwestern Dagestan (all part of the Russian Federation) and Khevsureti and Tusheti (Georgia).
Recently an isolated patch of wild goat range has been found in southeastern Dagestan (Fig. 11), surely a remnant of previous continuous distribution. Within this region, animals inhabit mostly the Side Range, with a few in the Watershed Range, and they have disappeared from most of the Rocky Range, where just a few patches remain.
A couple of years ago, photo-traps in Lagodekhi National Reserve, on the southern macro-slope, captured images of wild goats, which undoubtedly got there by crossing the Watershed Range from Dagestan. Unlike tur, wild goats are primarily forest dwellers, so their distribution follows not the ridges but the fluvial net of three major eastern North Caucasian rivers: the Argun, Andi Koisu and Avar Koisu.
Nevertheless, wild goat and tur often meet in the forest, especially during the rut. However, there is no information about hybridization in the wild. Wild goat range in the Eastern Greater Caucasus is the northernmost limit of the species and is completely isolated from its range in the Lesser Caucasus, which in turn is the northernmost branch of the main part of the species’ range in Western Asia.
Being a forest dweller, the wild goat is difficult to census in the Greater Caucasus. The latest estimates, based on zoologists’ field counts, calculated 1,200 to 1,500 animals for Russia (Dagestan and Chechnya) and as many as 300 in Georgia (Tusheti and Khevsureti). Despite birthing twins, which is normal for the species, wild-goat numbers in the Greater Caucasus most probably continue to shrink.
The recent history of the wild goat in the Lesser Caucasus resembles that of the chamois, although its prognosis is more favorable. Wild goats, which love drier conditions than tur and chamois, survive only in the more arid Eastern Lesser Caucasus, but in much greater numbers and distribution (Fig. 11). Total numbers of wild goats certainly exceed 3,000 in Armenia and Azerbaijan (Nakhchivan) and it looks like they are increasing there.
Wild goat had been included in first Red Data Book of the Soviet Union in 1978 and hunting had been banned even earlier; today, the animal is still red-listed in Russia and in all other Caucasian states as well: Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia. Thus no hunting is possible, though rumor has it that some hunts, labelled “scientific,” are taking place in Armenia. In reality, the present status of several wild-goat populations in Armenia and Azerbaijan would definitely allow limited hunting.
Asiatic mouflon, Ovis gmelini gmelini (Fig. 12), now resumes its specific status as distinct from urial. However, taxonomic disputes do not change the actual status of Asiatic mouflon, which is morphologically different from the neighboring wild sheep taxa.
The Lesser Caucasus, mainly the Nakhchivan enclave of Azerbaijan and adjacent areas in Armenia, is the very northern verge of mouflon range (Fig. 13). Traditional local hunters say that mouflon used to be quite numerous before World War II and that mass migrations across the Arax River occurred, but scientific publications present a much less optimistic picture, even for the very beginning of the 20th Century.
After that, despite a relatively high reproduction rate thanks to twinning, mouflon populations shrank. The species had long been regarded as rare in the USSR and hunting was officially banned there in 1940s. In Nakhchivan, hunting has been banned since 2001. The mouflon situation in Armenia seems even worse, despite an apparent uptick in 2010–15. Presently, mouflon probably number 500 to 600 in Nakhchivan and adjoining Armenia. The status and dynamics of the mouflon population will not allow regular hunting within the next 10 years.
A difficult history
The collectivization of farms after the Russian Revolution and the civil war in its wake (1917-23) was followed by famines and social upheaval during the 1930s. In the Caucasus and elsewhere, the Soviet government organized massive culling of wild animals to provide meat for the hungry. Tur were particularly hard-hit, and the numbers of harvested tur exceeded the total of all other mountain ungulates, as shown by the Russian-Soviet zoologist Vereshchagin in Figure 14.
The high off-take during the 1930s was probably partly responsible for the depletion of tur and other mountain ungulates, or at least for the lack of observable growth of these populations in the Caucasus between the two World Wars. Only in the 1950s and ‘60s did the populations stabilize and begin to grow again.
Undoubtedly, poaching diminished mountain-ungulate populations in the 20th Century and continues to do so now. Unfortunately, local attitudes toward poaching are rather cavalier—illegal tur hunting is viewed as an important part of the culture and lifestyle of mountain people, an expression of personal valor. The general belief is that poaching was and still is significantly more common than legal hunting, except perhaps in contemporary Nakhchivan.
It is also unfortunate that the managers and owners of mountain-ungulate hunting concessions in the Caucasus do not always operate for long-term sustainability. There are three main types of hunting outfits in Russia: state-owned, hunting society-owned and private. Hunting-society and private game operations often exaggerate their game census data, probably to look better in the eyes of supervising game departments and to get larger hunting quotas.
But then they have to face reality: the number of prospective hunting clients for whom license applications must be submitted. These numbers are usually lower than the game quotas that were requested. So, in the end, the granted quotas are well below the maximum sustainable yield, and even then some of the obtained licenses go unused.
One of the reasons for this short-sighted attitude is that the owners or managers of hunting outfits may not be locals, coming instead from areas far from the hunting concessions. They usually have no knowledge of game management and have no such trained specialists in their employ, and thus have little or no understanding of the sustainability of their actions and the necessity to create stable income for local communities. They may not even be hunters themselves. (State-owned hunting operations with experience in the field seem to be more adequate in this respect.)
Furthermore, general uncertainty about private property rights and the frequent changing of laws and regulations in the Russian Federation and other Caucasian states impacts business planning for those who hold leases or own hunting areas. Lacking confidence in their long-term prospects, managers tend to seize short-term opportunities.
It also should be pointed out that, despite overall trends due to large-scale events (e.g., the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the sudden independence of former Soviet Republics), local peculiarities abound: Often, if the wildlife situation improves in one area, it simultaneously worsens in neighboring areas. This is important since most of these mountain ungulates, or at least certain individual populations, are “transboundary”—tur and chamois require management across Russia, Georgia and Azerbaijan, and wild goat and mouflon in Azerbaijan and Armenia. Wildlife census data must be viewed with caution, and successful conservation measures in one country or region may be offset or even nullified by the situation across the border.
Last and not least, the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia resulted in very strained relations along the borders. And land mines definitely do not make life easier, especially for mouflon, but also for wild goats and large predators. The most recent war, during autumn 2020, illustrated yet again that long-term conservation efforts may be destroyed in a couple of weeks.
Paul Weinberg was born in Riga (then the Latvian SSR) and graduated from the Biological Faculty of the Latvian State University in 1975. That year, he began working with the North Ossetian State Nature Reserve (zapovednik), in the North Caucasus, as a researcher specializing in Caprinae, a position he still holds. Weinberg also has carried out Caprinae surveys in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey. He is a member of the IUCN Caprinae Specialist Group.
Banner Image: An old Kuban male tur in the Caucasian State Nature Biosphere Reserve, between the Kisha and Chessu Rivers, June 2013. Anya and Mitya Andreev photo from CIC Caprinae Atlas of the World (Damm & Franco, 2014)