There’s a myth that goats eat everything. In the case of the rare Nilgiri tahr (pronounced nil-ghi-ri tar), it’s everyone else that eats everything. So it’s no surprise you can win it over with the right food.
Thanks to the locals and British having spiffing fun shooting up the place, from the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th, this south Indian mountain goat fell to around 100. Nowadays, Tamil Nadu’s state animal is a healthier 2,000 or so, but with illegal hunting, cattle farming and consequent invasive plants closing in, it’s on both a literal and metaphorical cliff edge. It’s okay with a literal one though.
Tottering and leaping about at up to 2,600m (8,530ft) altitude, the Nilgiri tahr uses sheer cliffs and wiliness to avoid leopards, dholes and wolves. Like our striped dolphin friend, it keeps to all-male and mixed female-and-baby herds, but with less debauchery and interspecies bumping. While females are mostly greyish brown, males over five have a silvery back, hence the name “saddleback”, and to prove the weather doesn’t dampen their spirits, they breed during the monsoon in June to August. There are several small populations, with the largest in Eravikulam National Park, and it’s here that people have had the most luck befriending it with food. Some parts more than others.
The seasoned researcher
While studying the tahr’s social habits, Clifford B. Rice found they bolted whenever he was closer than 300m (984ft). After 7 months, they let him as near as 50m (164ft), nearer still if he pretended to ignore and “graze” with them. Then it was time for the big guns: salt, top of every Nilgiri tahr’s dream menu. This soon backfired, because whenever Rice got within 10m (32ft), rather than behave as nature intended, the tahr would simply stop and stare, waiting for him to bring out more salt. At least he was able to loop identity collars on some of them!
A game breaker
Tamer still are the Nilgiri tahr in Eravikulam National Park’s tourist area. Despite the aforementioned 19th century bullet storm, it was later designated a game preserve by its British tea planter owners, Kanan Devan Hills Produce Co. Ltd. According to George Netto of The Hindu, stricter anti-poaching checks followed, so the area became a relatively safe space for wild goaty antics. One of the company’s owners in the 1950s, Walter Mackay, used to even beep his horn and throw biscuits to the now eager tahr whenever he passed through!
The tahr were beginning to bounce back, but in 1971, the Government of Kerala wanted any land not used for tea to be repurposed for livestock.
Conservationists and tea planters alike made enough noise to save the area, and it became a national park in 1976. For the Nilgiri tahr there was even better news before then – it was plonked on the endangered species protection list in 1972.
So thanks to tea and biscuits, at least in part, the Nilgiri tahr has a friendlier relationship with humans and its own sanctuary. There are far worse things you can do with tea. Putting the milk in before the tea bag, for example.
Latin: Nilgiritragus hylocrius, after the Nilgiri Mountains
What: Spry, endangered Indian mountain goat
Where: Western Ghats in southern India, in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The largest population is found in Eravikulam National Park, near Munnar.
How big? About 1 metre / 3 feet tall at the shoulder.
Endangered? Yes – it has a very restricted range and there are only about 2,000-2,500 left thanks to poaching, invasive plants and land clearance for livestock.
Probable motto: Salt and tea are fine with me.
They look pretty. Do they need my help at all?
Yes – having small scattered populations is never good, and some of the Nilgiri tahr’s favourite grasses are also being eaten up by invasive plants from livestock areas. Illegal hunting is a problem too.
The Nature Conservation Foundation has multiple projects in the Western Ghats area, home of the Nilgiri tahr.
WWF India also includes the Nilgiri tahr as one of its priority species for conservation.
Just to prove I’m not fibbing:
“Eravikulam National Park“. No date. Tour My India.
Herman, Adam. No date. “Hemitragus hylocrius”. Animal Diversity Web.
“History“. No date. Eravikulam National Park.
Netto, George. “The Nilgiri tahr – the pride of Munnar”. The Hindu Thread.
“Nilgiritragus hylocrius“. No date. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
“Nilgiri tahr“. No date. Eravikulam National Park.
“Nilgiri tahr“. No date. Munnar.com.
“Nilgiri tahr“. No date. WWF India.
“Our history“. No date. Kanan Devan Hills Plantations Company (P) Limited.
Rice, Clifford G. 1988a. “Habitat, population dynamics, and conservation of the Nilgiri tahr, Hemitragus hylocrius”. Biological Conservation 44(3):137-156.
Rice, Clifford G. 1988b. “Agonistic and Sexual Behavior of Nilgiri Tahr (Hemitragus hylocrius)“. Ethnology: International Journal of Behavioural Biology 78(2):89-112.
Ropiquet, Anne. 2017. “Two new genera of Bovidae (Mammalia)“. Dumerilla 7:78-81.
Featured image credit: “Nilgiri Tahr”, by Sreekanth Gopinathan