by Peter Cunningham
During a hike up to the summit wadi's on Jebel Hafit during October I witnessed a rare event that made the unusual heat for this time of the year more bearable. An adult male Tahr emerged unexpectedly out of a gully approximately 100m ahead of me. Recognizing it immediately I knew how privileged I was to see this rare ungulate in its natural environment.
Arabian Tahr, Hemitragus jayakari, are endemic to the Arabian Peninsula and occur in mountainous terrain throughout the eastern UAE and northern Oman, from the Musandam in the north to the mountains bordering the Wahiba Sands in the south. The well-known Arabian explorer, Wilfred Thesiger, first documented them from Jebel Hafit in 1949 and mentions them being regularly hunted by local Bedu during that time. According to a study conducted on this species in Oman in the late 70's, the Arabian Tahr world population did not exceed 2000 animals. A helicopter survey of Jebel Hafit in 1980 sighted only 5 animals. During the 80's they were thought to be extinct on Jebel Hafit as no sightings were reported. Confirmed sightings are infrequent and they are classified as "critically endangered" (i.e. "facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild in the immediate future") in the UAE.
This little known species is in direct competition with domestic and feral goats for the available food. They are highly selective feeders mainly utilizing the growth tips and fruits of certain shrubs. The carrying capacity of mountains such as Jebel Hafit is generally low and the extra pressure of hunting (now illegal although not enforced) and excessive goat numbers could lead to the demise of this species in the wild if something drastic is not done to protect them.
The individual I encountered was typical of males of the species with its well-developed forequarters, prominent facial stripe, thick slightly curved horns and dark-brown shaggy coat [A previous sighting I had of a female in the Central Hajar Mountains had an overall slender build and "blonder" appearance]. Initially it was unaware of me as I had the wind in my favor and had approached the rise I was on with care. As soon as I moved to get my camera from my backpack it sensed me and loped off - not fleeing in fear - up the mountain towards some inaccessible cliffs where I could not follow. As I was not expecting to stumble upon Tahr, I was unprepared, but did eventually (after having to change lenses in haste) get two photos of the Tahr just before it disappeared over the crest. Unfortunately the distance involved as well as midday lighting did not make for a great photo and I am now trying to get the subject enlarged. Although not detracting from the actual encounter of observing Tahr at such close quarters, one thing I did however learn is to always be prepared for the unexpected - next time!