The celestial odometer clicks over to a new year on the Chinese calendar today, and it’s a Year of the Sheep. By some interpretations it may also be the Year of the Goat, but for National Geographic it is an opportunity to celebrate argali Ovis ammon polii, the world’s largest sheep.
Perhaps no one is more associated with Marco Polo sheep than George B. Schaller, one of the world’s preeminent field biologists. Born in Germany in 1933, Schaller serves as vice president of Panthera and as a Senior Conservationist with the Wildlife Conservation Society. He has advocated passionately for decades for Marco Polo sheep.
A recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Geographic Society’s Adventure magazine, Schaller was awarded a grant from the National Geographic Society Expeditions Council to determine the status and distribution of the Near Threatened Marco Polo sheep in the Pamir Mountains, where the Hindu Kush, Karakoram, and Kunlun ranges meet — a tough neighborhood shared by Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and Tajikistan.
David Braun: What makes Marco Polo sheep the biggest in the world; how is that defined?
George Schaller: The world record of the horn about the curve is about six feet (190 cm), the longest of any sheep. The weight of the animal is certainly one of the largest of the argali sheep; a male in good condition can weigh up to 400 pounds (180 kilograms).
DB: How did it become known as the Marco Polo sheep?
GS: Back in 1273 Marco Polo traveled through the area. He didn’t see any of the sheep, but he saw a lot of horns. This is what he wrote: “Great quantities of wild sheep of huge size.” Later when they gave scientific names to things they found his records and so they named the sheep after him. It seems very appropriate.
DB: Other than their size, is there anything uniquely special about them?
GS: Large and beautiful, they have become world renowned in part because of trophy hunters. Marco Polo sheep has become one of the premier trophies. I don’t know if there is a special role the animal plays in local cultures, but I have seen mounds of the horns made into cairns here and there.
DB: Sheep are not popularly known for being smart animals. Do Marco Polo sheep have a reputation for being smart?
GS: They are well adapted to their high altitudes, 13,000 feet or more, and they’ve obviously survived and thrived in the Pamir Mountains for thousands of years, so that’s evolutionary intelligence. They are hunted so much that they can see danger from great distances and start to run away.
Unlike the American bighorn sheep, which is rather a sturdy animal, adapted to steep terrain, which runs to cliffs when it gets nervous, argali sheep, including the Marco Polo sheep, have long thin legs made for running. So they escape by running.
DB: What are the biggest threats to this argali?
GS: There’s a lot of good meat on them, so they get heavily hunted. When I was in Tajikistan about ten years ago or so, all the restaurants in the Pamirs region of the country were selling Marco Polo sheep on the menu. That I hear has now been stopped.
But since the sheep cross all these countries, and everyone has weapons, the border guards, particularly in Tajikistan and Afghanistan, shoot Marco Polo sheep for food.
DB: Are there any signs that climate change may be impacting the sheep?
GS: That’s not measured yet, but certainly those high-altitude areas are going to get drier, which means there will be more competition for food between livestock and Marco Polo sheep.
But the big concern is to protect the remnant populations of the sheep, and that’s not always easy because they can move from country to country, except between Tajikistan and China where there’s a big border fence. But even that can be circumvented because the local people chop down the fence posts and use them for fuel.
DB: Do we know how many Marco Polo sheep survive in the wild?
GS: We know that only a few go across into Pakistan, perhaps only 100-150. In Afghanistan I estimate a thousand, but they also go into Tajikistan. In China there are several thousand. In 2009 the census for Tajikistan was around 23,700. So one way or another, if these figures are reasonable, you probably have 25,000 sheep, and they may be increasing again since there’s better protection, especially on the China side.
DB: What are your personal encounters with this animal in the wild?
GS: I recall that on one particular hunting concession in Tajikistan, where I found they were generally protected, apart from a few males taken by foreign hunters, I saw herds of 200 running. It’s a lovely sight in the high uplands to suddenly see hundreds of these magnificent sheep running away, when you thought they were extremely rare. So you know they have a chance.
DB: Have you eaten Marco Polo sheep in one of the restaurants you spoke about?
GS: Oh, sure. They taste better than our sheep. They’re less gamey. The meat is tender and very good. I’ve also eaten them in the Kyrgyz homes in Afghanistan. It’s very good meat. I hope me saying that doesn’t stimulate more hunting!
DB: So long as hunting is sustainable, right?
GS: It’s sustainable if it’s managed. But nobody is out there managing things. That’s the problem. The same is true for trophy hunting. If the hunting shoots less than five percent of the big males per year and the population is well protected, there’s no problem. But it is essential that in the communities where the animals are hunted by the Americans and the Mexicans, Germans and others, that those communities receive a good chunk of the money that is made.
After considerable pressure, Tajikistan agreed to give 60 percent of the funds it makes from the trophy licenses, which range between U.S.$22,000 and $27,000 per animal, towards conservation and the communities. But whether this money always reaches those two groups is another issue.
DB: You proposed the establishment of a transfrontier peace park between the four countries to protect the Marco Polo sheep and their habitat. What’s the status of that idea?
GS: [Laughs] You know, you’re dealing with the politics of four countries. Nothing goes smoothly. China, Pakistan and Afghanistan are in agreement. Afghanistan declared a couple of years ago the Wakhan Corridor [a strip that runs for 190 miles (305 kilometers) between Tajikistan, Pakistan, and China], its part where the Marco Polo sheep are, a national park.
Tajikistan has been very reluctant to be involved, thanks to outfits like Safari Club International, which is afraid that if they make an area part of a peace park they won’t be able to shoot Marco Polo sheep. That is completely wrong, because if it were part of a peace park it would be managed for the sheep and a certain number could still be shot.
Right now, Tajikistan gives 80 or so hunting licenses per year, and there’s no problem [doing that and] making it a peace park and managing it.
DB: Are you saying that the peace park initiative is stuck?
GS: It’s on an individual country-by-country basis. Each country is doing things, but for all four working together and doing something official, it is on hold right now. So one just keeps prodding away.
It would be nice to get this 20,000-square-mile peace park up there because it would also protect other species like snow leopard and ibex and it would help manage the range land for Kyrgyz and other local communities. Everyone in the region would benefit, not just the Marco Polo sheep.
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George Schaller has contributed writings and photographs to National Geographic magazine, such as an article on gorillas (October 1995) and Tibetan wildlife (August 1993). He also contributed to the National Geographic book The Great Apes (1993).
George Schaller’s research paper: Status of Marco Polo sheep Ovis ammon polii in China and adjacent countries: conservation of a Vulnerable subspecies (Oryx, 2008)
National Geographic news story: World’s Largest Sheep Are “Icons” of Threatened Region, Naturalist Says (2006)
George Schaller’s Marco Polo sheep research was funded by the National Geographic Society’s Expeditions Council.
David Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.
He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.
Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship.