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Argali - Ovis ammon

Family:
Sheep, goats (Artiodactyla Bovidae Caprinae)
Status:
Vulnerable

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Taxonomic status

Scientific name

Ovis ammon

Common name

Argali

Synonyms

Mountain sheep, (Asian) wild sheep, Marco Polo sheep

Comments on the subspecies

Argali live over a vast geographic range, but are separated into more-or-less disjunct populations, some of which are morphologically identifiable. How much (if any) of the taxon's disjunct distribution is natural and how much the result of anthropogenic influence remains open to date. Similarly, how (and even whether) various populations should be classified sub specifically remains contentious.

Recognized subspecies:

  • Ovis ammon ammon,
  • Ovis ammon collium,
  • Ovis ammon comosa (= jubata),
  • Ovis ammon darwini,
  • Ovis ammon hodgsoni,
  • Ovis ammon karelini,
  • Ovis ammon nigrimontana,
  • Ovis ammon polii,
  • Ovis ammon severtzovi. 

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Species information

Physical characteristics

Body Length 180 cm
Shoulder Height 120 cm
Tail Length ?
Weight 140 kg


The Argali, or mountain sheep, is the largest wild sheep, standing as high as 120 cm and weighing as much as 140 kg. The Pamir argali first described by Marco Polo and also named after him. Marco Polo sheep may attain more then 180 cm in length.

The general colouration varies between each animal, from a light yellow to a dark grey-brown. The face is lighter. Males have a whitish neck ruff, which encompasses most of the neck's surface, and a dorsal crest, both of which are more prominent in the winter coat.

Argali's have a whitish rump patch, although there is much variation between subspecies in terms of size and borders.

Adult males carry two enormous corkscrew-like horns, which can reach 190 cm, when measured along the spiral. Females also bear horns, although these are much smaller, rarely exceeding 30 cm in length.

Habitat, behaviour, food and reproduction

Habitat

Argali inhabit mountains, steppe valleys and rocky outcrops, they also occur in open desert habitats at the southeastern end of its range. Argali are sensitive to deep snow, particularly if forage is limiting; often migrating from high mountain habitats during winter, but are present all year round at lower elevations in the Gobi desert. Most Argali live on alpine grasslands between 3,000-5,500 m, often descending lower in winter (particularly if snow accumulates to more than a few cm).

In some areas, (e.g., Gobi desert of southern Mongolia, Karaganda area of Kazakhstan), they live in lower elevation, semi-arid areas. They generally avoid forested areas (except in Kazakhstan, where they are presumed to occupy forests because of displacement from preferred habitats. They prefer to occupy open areas with a gentle slope; females generally occupy steeper (cliff) terrain following lambing. Argali feed on grasses, sedges, and some herbs and lichens.

Food

They consume about 10 kg of fresh green plants per day in summer. They regularly drink from open springs and rivers. Arfali can live without water for some days (for example, if water shortage is due to temporary disturbance by man). Severe water shortage forces them to leave in search of a new source. Where sympatric with Blue sheep they are more likely to occur in grass-dominated communities compared to the sedge-dominated communities occupied by Blue sheep.

Behaviour

Although capable of digging in snow, they rarely do so. They dig in the soil to find plant roots.

During spring and summer, groups of personally related females are seen with their young (< 3 years). From the time of rut and through the winter, sheep form mixed groups and also groups of adult males. Group size is about 10 animals. Gatherings sometimes include 50-90 animals. Composition of group is constant, except during gatherings on pastures, when some groups unite. Leaders determine movement of groups through pastures and during escape.

Severe climate conditions with snow are the main mortality factor.

Reproduction

Gestation is about 160 days, and females give birth to one offspring (twins are occasionally reported in the literature, but documentation is poor). Mothers separate from the herd to give birth and remain alone with her offspring for several days. Females are sexually mature at 2 years, while males may not sexually mature until 5 years. Maximum life span is 10-13 years.

Gestation Period 160 days
Young per Birth 1
Weaning ?
Sexual Maturity females; 2 years, males; >5 years
Life span 10-13 years

 

Predation

Predation accounts for < 30% of the total mortality. Predators were responsible for killing 23-33% of the sheep found dead in the Kazakhstan mountains.

Wolves (Canis lupus) are their primary natural predator, especially when animals are weakened by starvation.

Maximum speed on the plain is 60 km/h (when pursued by a car). They have great endurance when they run. When escaping from danger they follow the leader. They are also preyed on by Leopard and Snow leopard. Foxes, Golden eagles and Lammergeyer are known to take lambs.

Population size and trends

China

Estimations differ (from during the early 1990s) of 41,700-53,500 Argali in China and (later) 23,298 -31,910. Both of these estimates were extrapolations based on density estimates from limited areas, and neither was associated with sufficient explanation to assess their accuracy. Given the tendency for density estimates to be taken from areas known to have the densest concentrations and to use models that are usually biased high, these estimates are more likely to be biased high than low.

On the Tibetan plateau the total number of Tibetan argalis could be as low as 7,000.
The Argali abundance in the Hashiha'er International Hunting Area of Gansu encompassing the northern slopes of the Danghenan Shan and the nearby Yemanan Shan in Subei County, Gansu is very uncertain: estimates vary between 500 and 4,000.

In Xinjiang, no estimates are available specifically for the Tian Shan or Altai Mountains (although estimates for the former are in the thousands, for the latter in the hundreds).

In Taxkorgan County where Xinjiang shares the Pamir range with Tajikistan and Afghanistan a survey in 2005 within Taxkorgan Nature Reserve counted 433 Argali. Based on the area sampled and assumptions about suitable habitat, an estimate of 1,500-1,700 Argali within the Reserve was extrapolated.

No population estimates are available for Argali in Inner Mongolia, but most populations appear to be isolated and small.

Due to the lacking of consistent trend monitoring, population trends in China are largely unknown. A population monitored periodically over 12 years in Yeniugou, in the Kunlun Mountains south of Golmud in Qinghai apparently declined); no marked difference in abundance was noted in a population monitored in Aksai, Qilian Mountains in Gansu.

Kazakhstan

Recent surveys in Kazakhstan revealed a disappointing picture of Argali status. Uncontrolled killing by those who carry firearms appeared to be common; local militia and customs officials had come to areas inhabited by Argali and killed dozens with gun-machines. In the Kara-Tau Mountains, it is believed that the population could have been as low as 100 animals.

Kyrgyzstan

There is little consensus regarding the abundance of Argali in Kyrgyzstan. In 1994 565 individuals were counted in the western part of the Kokshalatau range in summer 1993. Based on these counts plus older, unpublished counts, an estimate of 6,000 Argali in north-eastern Kyrgyzstan was extrapolated.

"No more than 2,000" Argali were reported in Tian Shan (which may have included parts of Kazakhstan), and estimates of from 9,900 to 16,000 in the Pamir and Tian Shan, (which included parts of Tajikistan.

Aerial surveys conducted during winters 1990 and 1991 tallied 5,493 Argali, and estimated a total population of approximately 8,000 in the early 1990s. In 2005 Argali were counted in Kygzystan: 10,000-12,000 in the Pamir and 5,000 in the Tian Shan.

Based on extrapolations from counts in Aksai, Arpa-Naryn, Dzhety-Oguz, and Issyk-Kul oblasts, Kyrgyz government surveys have estimated approximately 15,900 Argali in 2006, slightly lower than in previous years, and down from an estimated 26,000 in 2003.

Mongolia

No rigorous population estimates exist for Mongolia nation-wide. The Mongolian Academy of Sciences has conducted a few countrywide surveys; however, the methods used do not permit accurate population estimation. Alternatively, they do provide some measure of population trends because similar methods were used.

The methods involved several teams of biologists driving and hiking in areas known to at least historically contain populations of Argali sheep and discussions with local people and local government officials in these areas.

These surveys yielded round number estimates (lacking measures of precision) of 40,000 in 1970, 50,000 in 1975, 60,000 in 1985, and between 13,000-15,000 in 2001. 

The 2001 Academy of Sciences survey suggested that approximately 10,000 - 12,000 Argali inhabited the Gobi Region of Mongolia and 3,000 - 5,000 Argali inhabited the Altai Region.

It is difficult to gauge the accuracy of these figures given the methods and data provided in government reports, but on regional distribution data, it does appear that:

  • Argali continue to decline in western and central Mongolia,
  • While populations in eastern Mongolia appear to be expanding.
  • Argali populations in southern Mongolia appear to be relatively stable.
  • Probably no more than a few thousand Altai Argali persist in Mongolia,
  • While several thousand Gobi Argali inhabit a growing range in the south and east.

Russia

In the mid-1990s it was estimated that between 450-700 Argali occurred in the Altai Mountains of southern Russia, distributed among numerous subpopulations none of which exceed 50 animals.

Reports counts of 80-85 Argali within Altaisky Zapovednik (speculating that 100-110 individuals may have existed), 150-160 in headwaters of rivers of Sailugem Ridge (south of the Zapovednik, near the Mongolian border), and 40-45 individuals along the slopes of Chikhachev's Ridge in the Tuvan Republic.

Tajikistan

Numerous figures have been put forward for the total number of Argali in Tajikistan.

Helicopter surveys conducted in 1991 tallied 9,415 animals, with the estimated total in Tajikistan being 9,900-10,300. Density was highest in the eastern-most section, near the border with China where "engineering" works limited human access.

In summer 2003 1,528 Argali were counted within selected census blocks totaling 1,977 km² (and in winter 2005, counted 2,200 animals within their South Alichur block in Murgab).

Uzbekistan

Within Nuratinski Strictly Protected Area (SPA) of the Nuratau Mountains, about 1,200-1,300 Argali survive. Outside of the protected area the Nuratau Mountains supports about 250-300 Argali, of which ~150-200 occur in western Nuratau and 100 individuals occur in eastern Nuratau and the Koitash Range.

Under 100 Argali remain in the Tamdytau and Aktau Ranges. A few individuals may persist in the Malguzar Range near the Zaaminsk SPA. Therefore, a total of under 1,800 Severtzov's Argali persist in Uzbekistan, of which 90% occur in the Naratau Range.

AreaNumbersDevelopment
World96,000-114,000Declining
Mongolia1,000–15,000Declining
Russia450-700Declining
China Several hunderds?
Kazakhstan8,000-12,000?
Kyrgystan Pamir10,000 – 12,000?
Kyrgystan Tian Shan5,000?
Tajikistan13,000-14,000?
Uzbekistan1,800?
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Distribution: maps, historical and current

Countries

Landscapes

Interactive map



Ovis ammon - Argali: Current distribution
Source: IUCN Red List of Threatened Species


Argali in a larger map

Further map information

Argali - current distribution
Source: IUCN Red List of Threatened Species

Argali - current distribution

Historical distribution

The Historical range of the Argali included all highlands in Central Asia and neighbouring countries including Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and China.

The Altai argali was previously found in Tuva, south Altai and Southeast Zabaikal, but by 1980s it had disappeared in the Kuray and South-Chuya ranges and from the Ukok plateau.

In Uzbekistan the Severtzov's argali disappeared over a wide area of Uzbekistan, where it formerly occupied the mountains of Beltau, Aktau, Tamdytau, and other low ranges in the high desert regions.

The Tien Shan argali has disappeared completely, except for some small populations in western and northern Tien Shan.

In Mongolia Argali became extinct in eastern Hosgvol and the hills on the north side of the Onon valley during the 19th century.

Current distribution

This species is found in northeastern Afghanistan, China (Gansu, Inner Mongolia, Qinghai, possibly western Sichuan, Tibet, and Xinjiang), northern India (Ladakh, Sikkim, and Spiti), eastern Kazakhstan, eastern Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, northern Nepal (near the Chinese border), extreme northern Pakistan, Russia (Tuvan and Altai Republics in the Altai Mountains), eastern Uzbekistan, and eastern Tajikistan. There are no recent records of Argali occurrence in Bhutan.

China

Argali are distributed in most mountain ranges of Xinjiang, including the Altai Shan, Arjin Shan, Kara-Kunlun Shan, Pamirs, and Tian Shan and associated ranges.

Within the ranges of the Tibetan Plateau, Argali are distributed discontinuously and irregularly. Although present in ranges from the Himalaya to the Qilian Shan in Gansu, Argali on the Tibetan Plateau appear to be rare where temperatures are exceedingly low, winter snows deep, and/or precipitation amounts too low to support grass.

However, relatively healthy populations occur in the Qilian and Kunlun Mountains of Gansu and Qinghai (although from written accounts, argali are rare in the drier, western portions of the Kunlun Shan. Chinese sources report the species as present in extreme western Sichuan, but recent documentation of this is weak.

Argali are patchily distributed in Inner Mongolia. They are historically known from parts of Shaanxi and Ningxia Provinces (in the Helan Shan, which forms Ningxia's western border with Inner Mongolia), but recent records suggest that they no longer occurs in either of these provinces.

Kazakhstan

In Kazakhstan, Argali are present in the Kazakhshiy and Melkosopoachnik regions, north of Lake Balkash, in the north-eastern part of the country. Small populations are also present in the Kara-Tau Mountains, and the ranges of the West Tian Shan, both north and west of Almaty. Argali historically inhabited the Beltau Mountains and eastern portions of the Aktau range, but the subspecies is believed to be extirpated from Kazakhstan.

Kyrgyzstan

In Kyrgyzstan, Argali are present along the eastern quarter of the country toward the Chinese border from Kazakhstan in the north to Tajikistan in the south, as well as along portions of the eastern Tian Shan toward the Uzbek border.

Mongolia

Argali are distributed widely, but patchily across a large portion of Mongolia. Historically, Argali occurred in disjunct populations across all, but eastern Mongolia, in areas with rolling hills, mountains, rocky outcrops, canyons, and plateaus.

Argali appear to be expanding their distribution in eastern Mongolia, but contracting and becoming even more fragmented in western Mongolia. Large areas formerly occupied by argali in western Mongolia now lack the species.

The species current distribution includes portions of the Altai, Trans-Alai, Gobi-Altai, Khangai, Khentie, and Khovsgol Mountain ranges, as well as isolated areas in the Gobi Desert. More specifically, isolated populations exist in the mountains of the Mongolian Altai and Gobi Altai Mountains, primarily the western and southern Khangai Mountains, near the source of the Arsain River in the Khovsgol Mountains, and the southernmost Khentii Mountains. Other populations persist patchily in the Dzungarian Gobi Great Gobi, Trans-Altai Gobi, Alashan Gobi, Middle Gobi, and eastern Gobi.

Russia

Argali were formerly found in Zabaikal, Kuray, and the South-Chuya ranges and the Ukok plateau. More recently, they are known only from Tuva and Altai Republics.

Tajikistan

Argali are present through most of the eastern third of Tajikistan, from the border with Xinjiang, China west to Langar in the south and Sarez Lake in the north. 

Uzbekistan

Argali were previously distributed over a wide area of Uzbekistan from the northeastern part of the Pamiro-Alaya mountain range through the low mountains of the Kyzylkum Desert. Historically, it occupied the mountains of Nuratau, Aktau, Koratau, Malguzar east of Turkenstanski in Pistalitau, Tamdytau, Bukantua, Kuldjuktau, and other low ranges in the Kyzylkum Desert.

Today, the majority of animals surviving are restricted to the higher mountains of Nuratau, primarily with the Nuratinski Strictly Protected Area, north of Samarkand (Uzbekistan). Very small populations persist in the western Aktau, Tamdytau, and Malguzar Ranges.

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Threats

Main threats

  • over-hunting and poaching (for meat)
  • competition, displacement and possibly disease transmission by domestic livestock
  • habitat loss

In general, Argali appear to be extremely intolerant of human disturbance. These threats appear to vary little among Argali populations, even though habitats vary.

China

In China, poaching has been considered to be a substantial threat. In the mid-1990s however, a nationwide effort to confiscate guns from pastoralists substantially reduced the weaponry available for poaching. This, together with continued efforts to publicize the national law prohibiting killing protected species, appears to have reduced poaching during the last decade or so. At the same time however, efforts to regularize and sedentarize pastoralists generally increased habitat conflicts, because pastoralists typically intensified their use of productive grasslands preferred by Argali, thus displacing them.

Kazakhstan

As elsewhere, livestock grazing and poaching were considered the principal limiting factors to Argali in Kazakhstan.

Kyrgyzstan

There is general consensus that habitat conditions for Argali improved after Kyrgyzstan's independence in 1991, due to the collapse of the state-supported livestock sector and consequent reduction in grazing pressure in the Tian Shan and Pamirs. It is unclear whether relatively low livestock density near the Chinese border will continue.

Poaching and competition with livestock are also considered threats in Kyrgyzstan. After independence in 1991, the number of domestic sheep herded into Argali habitat declined dramatically, which likely had a beneficial effect. However, since 2000 there have been informal reports that livestock numbers have again risen.

Mongolia

The main threat facing Argali in Mongolia is poaching for subsistence (meat) and increasingly for their horns, which are increasingly being used as substitute horn in traditional Chinese medicine. Also important are the impacts from local, nomadic pastoralists who displace Argali, whose livestock feed on the same forage as Argali, and whose dogs chase and even kill Argali.

More minor and localized threats include unsustainable trophy hunting and habitat loss resulting from rapidly increasing resource extraction (i.e., mining). Subsistence poaching by miners general represents a greater threat than actual mining activities, but this may change as the number of mines continues to grow rapidly. These threats remain important due to poor or non-existence law enforcement throughout most of the range of the species in Mongolia.

Very little money from trophy hunting currently supports conservation activities in Mongolia.

Russian

Unlike in Mongolia, domestic livestock herds in the Russian Altai were reported has having declined during the 1990s, providing a potential opportunity for expansion of the protected area network in the Altai-Sayan area.

Uzbekistan

In Uzbekistan, poaching represents the main threat facing Severtzov's Argali, which continues to occur even within protected area. The second major threat to Severtzov's Argali is a loss of habitat and competition with domestic livestock for forage.

Finally, inbreeding and harsh climatic conditions represent threats for the very small, isolated populations in the Aktau, Tamdytau, and Malguzar Mountains. 

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Conservation information

IUCN Red List

Vulnerable: - VU A2cde ver. 2.3 (1994) RL2008, Near Threatened 2008

EU habitat directive

-

CITES

-

EU Wildlife trade regulation EC Reg. 338/97

Annex A

Bern convention

-

Bonn convention

-

Conservation status

Listed as Near Threatened because this species is believed to be in significant decline (but probably at a rate of less than 30% over three generations, taken at 24 years) due to poaching and competition with livestock, making the species close to qualifying for Vulnerable under criterion A2de.

Socio-economic aspects

Trophy hunting for Argali can benefit the local community and the conservation of the species, if money gained by the fee paid by the hunters is put back in the conservation of the Argali and in the local community. Unfortunate this is not the case and thus only benefit a few people from the hunting and has it a negative effect on the population.

Conservation organisations and important websites

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Project information

Title

Mongolia, Sustainable hunting project

Year, Organisation

-, WWF Mongolia

Description

Mongolia, Sustainable hunting project by WWF Mongolia

Title

Captive breeding

Year, Organisation

-, -

Description

A captive breeding program for Severtzov's Argali occurs just outside Nuratinski SPA, Uzbekisthan, to supplement the wild population and provide animals for trophy hunters.

Title

Captive breeding

Year, Organisation

-, Biologicalinstitute and Institute of Genetics and Cytology of the Siberian branch of the Academy of Sciences

Description

A small captive herd is kept at Chirga (Altai) at the laboratory of the Academy. .

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Library

Presentations

Reports

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Recommendations, remarks and advice

Policy and Politics

National

  • A scandal was caused by top Russian VIP (several high politicians) after poaching on the legally protected Altai Argali Sheep in 2009.
  • International pressure is needed to persuade governments to actually really protect Argali and stop corruption around this highly valued trophy species.
  • Improve enforcement of existing legislation that will help stop poaching and conserve Argali.

Communication

A HD study is needed to get support for Argali conservation and sustainable use.

Work to improve the livelihoods of local communities in areas where Argali are protected by local initiatives and re-initiate community-based approaches to Argali conservation.

Fundraising

Establish partnership with hunting organisations and companies.

Economical

Let local communities benefit from the income generated through trophy hunting.

Scientific

  • Continue ecological research. Monitor population trends.
  • Stimulate effective monitoring of hunted population.
  • Let independent organisations make management plans for the Argali populations e.g. WWF, LHF, that are hunted for trophies.
  • An inventory of all suitable habitat should be made to add the Spatial requirements actions.

Spatial Requirements

Link all subpopulations and subspecies together

As the separation into subpopulations and subspecies has anthropogenic influence ecological corridors should link all subpopulations and subspecies together.

Area Management

Protected areas

More protected areas need to be established, to protect the species and limit competition with livestock.

Conservation management and capacity

Enhance conservation management in protected areas where Argali are found at high population densities, and increase the capacity of protected areas personnel and other tax enforcement officers.

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Experts and scientific referees

IUCN SSC

For more detailed information view the 'Argali - Ovis ammon' page on to the IUCN Red List of threatened species.

Harris, Richard

Ecosystem and Conservation Sciences
Adjunct Associate Professor Department of Ecosystem and Conservation Sciences College of Forestry and Conservation University of Montana

Jungius, Hartmut

Member of ECNC Scientific Council
WWF international

Klich, Daniel

Chair of Applied Ecology, Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences, John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, Poland

Lkhagvasuren, Badamjav

WWF Mongolia

Michel, Stefan

Mountain ungulates
NABU, Germany, Mountain Ungulates Project in Tajikistan
www.wildlife-tajikistan.org/

Ochir, Chimed

Involved in developing an integrated conservation programme for Mongolia and the Altai-Sayan ecoregion.
WWF Mongolia - director

Reading, Richard

Ecology & Conservation of Wild Bactrian Camels in Mongolia
Director of Conservation Biology at the Denver Zoological Foundation
www.edgeofexistence.org/community/member_info.php?id=13

Singh, Navinder

Large mammals; Central and South Asia, Europe; Biodiversity Offsets, Business and Biodiversity
Imperial College London, U.K.
www.bio-demography.org/navinder.html

Vlasakker, Joep van de

Large mammals in Eurasia
Flaxfield Nature Consultancy

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Sources

Baskin L & K. Danell

2003, Ecology of ungulates: a handbook of species in Eastern Europe and Northern and Central Asia.

Harris, R.B. & Reading, R.

2008, Ovis ammon In IUCN 2009., IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2009.2 www.iucnredlist.org

Shackleton D.

1997, Wild Sheep and Goats and their Relatives, Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan for Caprinae.

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All comments on Argali (Ovis ammon)

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