Bharals are distributed broadly across the Tibetan Plateau, a relatively inaccessible habitat for humans. In addition to Tibet, the plateau includes the high montane regions of China, the northeastern corner of Pakistan, and the mountains of northwestern Nepal, and the Indian sector bordering China (Wang and Hoffman 1987).
Biogeographic Regions: oriental (Native )
This taxon remains fairly abundant in most of its principle range among the ranges of the Tibetan Plateau in China (Schaller 1998, Harris 2007). In China, its distribution runs from western Tibet, southwestern Xinjiang (Schaller et al. 1987) where there are small populations in the mountains bordering the western edge of Aru Co, extending eastwards with in scattered populations throughout the autonomous region. It also occurs in southern Xinjiang, along the Kunlun Mountains and in the Arjin Mountains. It is present in most mountain ranges of western and southern Qinghai into eastern Sichuan and northwestern Yunnan, as well as in the Qilian and associated ranges of Gansu. The eastern extent of its current distribution appears to be in the Helan Shan which form the western border of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region (with Inner Mongolia).
It is found throughout northern Bhutan above 4,000 to 4,500 m asl. Blue Sheep are fairly continuously distributed in the northern Himalayan and Trans-Himalayan regions of India, although the extent of its eastern distribution along the northern border of Arunachal Pradesh is still unknown. They are relatively common in many areas of eastern Ladakh (Jammu and Kashmir), and in parts of Spiti and the upper Parbati valley in northern Himachal Pradesh (Fox et al. 1986, S. Pandey pers. comm.). Blue Sheep are known to occur in the Govind Pashu Vihar Wildlife Sanctuary and Nanda Devi National Park, and near Badrinath (Uttar Pradesh), on the slopes of the Khangchendzonga massif (Sikkim), and in eastern Arunachal Pradesh. Very recently, Blue Sheep presence has been confirmed in the northwestern corner of Arunachal Pradesh near its border with Bhutan and China. In Nepal, it is fairly continuously distributed to the north of the Greater Himalaya from the border with India and Tibet in the extreme northwest, eastwards through Dolpo and Mustang to Gorkha district in north-central Nepal. It then re-occurs in Nepal in at least two isolated areas: in Lamobogar, and on the southwestern slopes of Kanchenjunga near the border with Sikkim (India) (Schaller 1977, Wegge 1991). These two are probably connected with more extensive populations across the border in Tibet.
Its main distribution range in Pakistan includes the upper Gujerab valley, the upper Shimshal valley, and the area eastward from Shimshal pass (District Gilgit), including part of Khunjerab National Park (Schaller 1976; Roberts 1977; Rasool 1986; Wegge 1988, 1989; G. Tallone in litt. 1993). Outside these areas there is a single, recent observation of one animal from Khunjerab pass (R. Hess pers. obs. 1985). Earlier, Roberts (1977) mentioned its occurrence (with proof) around Shigar and the Baltoro glacier (District Baltistan), however, we have no actual information from this area. Roberts’ (1977) source for its occurrence in the Passu valley was a quote from Lydekker (1907) who mentioned “Hunza valley, near Passu”, but possibly meaning the Shimshal valley. The presence of the species in the Passu valley is not confirmed (D. Mallon pers. obs. in litt.).
Grubb (2005) indicates that Blue Sheep can be found in Tajikistan, but documentation for this is not provided, and recent surveys of the Pamir area have failed to mention find evidence of occurrence in Tajikistan (Magomedov et al. 2003, Schaller 2005), or neighboring regions of Taxkorgan County in Xinjiang, China (Schaller 2005) or Afghanistan (Schaller 2003). Maps of the species' distribution can be found in Shackleton (1997) and Schaller (1998).
Blue Sheep possess a stocky body and stout legs, with robust shoulders and a broad chest (Wang and Hoffman 1987). Their pelage ranges from grayish brown to slate blue (Schaller 1998), hence the common name blue sheep. The blue tint of the bharals makes them almost invisible against the background of blue-grayish rock that is typical within their habitat (Wang and Hoffman 1987). Their hair is short and they lack a beard. There is a black stripe that separates the upper parts of the back from the white side. Their horns sweep up and out and then curve back before curling at the tip. Females resemble males except they have shorter horns and the stripe is gray instead of black (Schaller 1998).
Range mass: 35 to 75 kg.
Range length: 120 to 140 cm.
Other Physical Features: endothermic ; bilateral symmetry
Catalog Number: USNM 240683
Collection: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Vertebrate Zoology, Division of Mammals
Preparation: Mounted Skeleton
Collector(s): F. Wulsin
Year Collected: 1923
Locality: Lanchow, Gansu, China, Asia
- Type: Howell, A. B. 1928 Jun 29. Proc. Biol. Soc. Wash. 41: 118.
Blue Sheep occupy a variety of habitats across the region. They are very tolerant of environmental extremes from desert mountains in searing heat to windy and cold slopes (Schaller 1998). They are usually found near cliffs and similar escape cover, but avoid entering forested areas (Schaller,1977).
Range elevation: 1,200 to 6,000 m.
Habitat Regions: temperate
Terrestrial Biomes: desert or dune ; mountains
Habitat and Ecology
Blue Sheep are active throughout the day, feeding on lichens, herbaceous plants, and mosses. Females gestate for 160 days and give birth to one offspring per pregnancy. The animals are sexually mature at 1.5 years, though males are not fully sexually active until age 7. They can live 12-15 years, although animals of > 10 are rarely encountered. Blue Sheep generally live in large groups. Males sometimes form all male herds, and sometimes mix with family aggregations. Small groups (e.g., 300 individuals have been observed.
Bharals mainly feed on dry grasses in the winter, and alpine grasses in the summer (Schaller 1977). However, Blue sheep display much seasonal change in diet. According to Schaller (1998), graminoids (grasses) ranged from 10.5% up to 92% of the diet in the summer, but grasses were also the main source of diet in the winter, supplemented with shrubs and forbs. The great range in the percentage of grasses is because of the many different types of habitat these animals occupy. Abundance of grasses can be different throughout the plateau due to the increasing latitude. The higher the latitude the lower the percentage of grass found in their diet, while the percentage of the supplemental shrubs, forbs, and occasional twigs increases.
Plant Foods: leaves; wood, bark, or stems; seeds, grains, and nuts
Primary Diet: herbivore (Folivore , Granivore )
Bharal practice two antipredator strategies. They almost always remain near cliffs, in preparation to run toward rugged slopes to avoid danger with a female leading the retreat (Wang and Hoffman 1987). Also, they give sharp alarm calls to warn fellow members of the herd (Schaller 1977).
This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
Life History and Behavior
Perception Channels: tactile ; chemical
Adults have a relatively long life as determined from growth rings on the horns. To get an idea of the maximum lifespan of these animals samples were taken from hunters: 10% lived 1-4 yrs, 73% 4-10 yrs, and 17% 11-15 yrs. Over 80% of the males died between the ages of 4-10 years during their prime. Males are represented here because of the bias of hunters, and young males and females are underrepresented because of their small horns being less attractive to trophy hunters (Schaller 1998).
Status: wild: 15 to 17 years.
Status: wild: 4 to 11 years.
Status: captivity: 15.0 years.
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
Male bharals show little interest in females until the females are in estrus, beginning near the end of November to February, with the young being born between mid-May and early-July (Schaller 1977). Estrus lasts for over a month in this species but altitude decides the start time. The differences among elevations can probably be ascribed to the availability of high-quality forage during the time of gestation (Schaller 1998).
Young males less than a year old have straight horns, 5 cm long, and a woolly cap of hair. Yearling males are about 2/3 the size of adult females. They lack the lateral stripes and their horns are about 15 cm. When they reach 3 years of age they are the size of the adult females, but still lack the stripe. Their horns reach about 35 cm. By 5-7 years of age the males reach full maturity with their horns reaching 45-55 cm long. Schaller (1977)
Breeding season: Late November thru February
Range number of offspring: 1 to 2.
Range gestation period: 4 to 5.33 months.
Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 7 (low) years.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 2 years.
Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 7 (low) years.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 2 years.
Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; viviparous
Average number of offspring: 1.5.
Parental Investment: altricial ; female parental care
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Pseudois nayaur
No available public DNA sequences.
Download FASTA File
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Pseudois nayaur
Public Records: 4
Specimens with Barcodes: 4
Species With Barcodes: 1
The blue sheep are widespread and locally abundant, this situation is well suited for a well-regulated management program that could include a sustainable annual harvest in certain areas for commercial purposes (Schaller 1998).
US Federal List: no special status
CITES: no special status
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: least concern
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
In western China, P. nayaur was said to be “relatively abundant” (Shackleton 1997, Wang 1998), with various (questionable) local density estimates, and a total population greater than 10,000. The bulk of these 10,000 were an extrapolation for the Arjin Shan Nature Reserve, which is probably an overestimate. However, numerous areas within the current range were not included in this estimate, so the amount of 10,000 within the western portion of the Chinese range is not necessarily out of the question (Schaller 1998 guessed that at least 10,000 inhabited the Chang Tang Nature Reserve in western Tibet). Schaller (1998) cited an estimate by Pu (1993) of 34,500-49,600 in “western Tibet”, which includes but is larger than the Chang Tang Nature Reserve.
Further east within the Tibetan plateau, Wang (1998) cited a Chinese extrapolation of over 1,200,000 in Qinghai province (of which 267,000 were in “eastern” Qinghai), which is probably a considerable overestimate. Schaller (1998), in discussing the estimate by Pu (1993, see above), noted that it is likely that greater than 20-30% of the entire Chinese population lives east of “western Tibet”. If there are 30,000 – 50,000 in “western Tibet”, there may thus be roughly from 43,000 – 62,500 (using the derivation from Pu 1993), to 200,000 – 400,000 (using extrapolations from Wang 1998) within the entire Chinese portion of the Tibetan Plateau.
In the Helan Shan, Ren et al. (1999) and Lü et al. (2000) estimated roughly 5,000 to 9,000 Blue Sheep, but their extrapolations were based on non-randomly placed transects. Liu et al. (2005) have continued to monitor this population, which, regardless of methodological problems in estimating its size, is clearly dense and in no danger.
Most extrapolations of population size in China are based on insufficient justification, and should be viewed with caution. However, in marked contrast to other species, field investigations of subjective and anecdotal reports of P. nayaur invariably confirm the presence and general abundance of this species. Thus, although specific figures in Chinese literature may be inaccurate, all evidence suggests that P. nayaur is widespread and relatively abundant within appropriate habitats within Chinese portions of the Tibetan plateau.
Within India, Shackleton (1997) cites an estimate produced by Fox et al. (1991) of “a minimum of 11,000” within Ladakh. In Nepal, Shackleton (1997) reports a “conservative estimate of 10,000 animals”, although Schaller (1998) included a table suggesting 1,947-2,561 in areas counted within Nepal. In Pakistan, Shackleton writes that, “according to written reports [Wegge 1988, Rasool 1990], the species is not as rare as previously thought…the most recent estimates indicated between 2,000 and 2,500 animals in 1992.” No estimate is available for Bhutan.
Taken together, these estimates suggest total population sizes of from roughly 47,000 (almost certainly a very conservative estimate) to 414,000 (probably an overestimate).
Because access to Pseudois nayaur habitat is usually difficult and individual body-size is relatively small, market-based poaching for meat appears to be rare, at least in the northern portions of the Tibetan plateau. Locally-based, subsistence poaching has occurred frequently in recent years, and no doubt continues. However, China has recently begun implementing a new policy of confiscating all guns from nomadic pastoralists, and observations during 1998-2002 in Gansu and Qinghai provinces corroborate this (R. Harris pers. obs.). Thus, local herders now have little technology with which to poach P. nayaur for meat. International (“trophy”) hunting for P. nayaur occurs, but only in four to five designated areas in China and Nepal (and possibly in Pakistan), and in numbers too small to have substantial population impacts. It seems most likely, therefore, that human use of P. nayaur has been decreasing in recent years. International hunting (including for Blue Sheep) in China was suspended in 2006, and as of summer 2014 had not yet been re-established.
An outbreak of sarcoptic mange was reported among P. nayaur in extreme northern Pakistan, and has markedly reduced abundance locally. This may yet be a cause for concern range-wide, but similar reports from elsewhere within the species’ range have not surfaced (Woodford 2003, 2006).
In Bhutan, the species is not in immediate danger and numbers seem to be increasing due to the expansion of grazing areas for domestic yaks. However, heavy grazing by both species is damaging the fragile, high alpine vegetation, so Blue Sheep population trends may be reversed in the near future.
In India the major threat is localized over-hunting, including that by the army in remote outposts. Within Nepal, although in some areas religious beliefs protect Blue Sheep from poaching, excessive competition from livestock grazing may cause habitat degradation in much of its natural range.
In Pakistan, limited range and low numbers make Blue Sheep vulnerable to poaching and habitat loss. When access to the Shimshal valley is opened by construction of a jeep road, the species will most probably come under increased hunting pressure.
In Bhutan, Blue Sheep are known to occur in Jigme Dorji National Park. Conservation measures proposed by Wollenhaupt (1989) included, using input from local inhabitants, establishing integrated alpine forest and grassland reserves in high elevation areas where demand for domestic yak grazing is considerable and deforestation and degradation of alpine areas occur (Wollenhaupt 1989).
In India, Blue Sheep occur in several national parks and many other protected areas in northern India (Fox 1987; Fox et al. 1986, 1991; Gaston et al. 1981, 1983; Green 1987; Pandey in prep.; Singh et al. 1990) including: Jammu and Kashmir - Hemis National Park and Sabu Chukor Wildlife Reserve; Himachal Pradesh - Great Himalayan and Pin Valley National Parks and Chital, Daranghati, Kais, Kanawar, Lippa Asrang, Rakshum, Rupi Bhaba, Sangla Valley (includes previous Rakcha-Chitkul WS), Sechu Tuan Nala, and Tirthan (locally threatened) Wildlife Sanctuaries; Uttar Pradesh - Nanda Devi and Valley of Flowers National Parks, and Govind Pashu Vihar and Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuaries; Sikkim - Khangchendzonga National Park; and their unlikely presence in Namdapha National Park of northeastern Arunachal Pradesh needs to be checked. Conservation measures proposed for India: 1) Establish the proposed Changtang, Gya-Miru, Karakoram, and Lung Nag Wildlife Sanctuaries (Jammu and Kashmir), and the extensions to the Great Himalayan National Park and the proposed Srikhand National Park (Himachal Pradesh). 2) Determine if Blue Sheep occur along the northern border of Arunachal Pradesh. 3) Make the control of illegal hunting of this species the primary management priority to maintain viable populations under current land use regimes. 4) Monitor changes in livestock grazing practices that could affect competition with Blue Sheep.
In Nepal, Blue Sheep are found in Shey-Phoksundo National Park and in the Annapurna Conservation Area. It is the main big game species in the Dhorpatan Hunting Reserve. Conservation measures proposed for Nepal: 1) Maintain the current, closely controlled legal hunting program, and 2) consider a regulated program of sustainable, low-level subsistence hunting by local villagers in some areas. At the same time, 3) steps should be taken to halt or reverse the habitat destruction caused by livestock grazing in the Blue Sheep’s natural habitat.
Khunjerab National Park contains a large portion of Pakistan’s total population of Blue Sheep. It occurs in no other protected area. Conservation measures proposed for Pakistan: 1) Extend the boundaries of Khunjerab National Park eastwards. 2) Address problems faced by local people whose livelihoods would be affected by this extension. The management plan originally proposed for Khunjerab National Park did not do this, but this is necessary before its conservation recommendations can be implemented. The measures taken in the Bar valley project initiated by WWF-Pakistan and similar projects could serve as useful models. 3) Determine what detrimental influences the new road to Shimshal will have in the Park’s modified management plan.
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Population control is probably nessesary because of overgrazing and the destruction of grasslands. Currently, hunting and predation keeps this from being a problem.
Bharals populations seem to be healthy. As a result,in some areas they are hunted. They are considered trophy kills because of the rugged terrain one must conquer in order to find them, and there are many organized trips one can take to the Tibetan Plataeu to try one's luck. They are also important as the primary prey of snow leopards. In areas of their range in India, domestic livestock may interfere with bharals populations.
Positive Impacts: food ; body parts are source of valuable material; ecotourism
The bharal or Himalayan blue sheep or naur (Pseudois nayaur) is a caprid found in the high Himalayas of Nepal, Tibet, China, India, Pakistan, and Bhutan. Its native names include bharal, barhal, bharar and bharut in Hindi, na or sna in Ladakh, nabo in Spitian, naur in Nepali and na or gnao in Bhutan.
The bharal was also the focus of George Schaller's and Peter Matthiessen's expedition to Nepal in 1973. Their personal experiences are well documented by Matthiessen in his book, The Snow Leopard. The bharal is a major food of the snow leopard.
This medium-sized sheep is 115 to 165 cm (45 to 65 in) long along the head-and-body, with a tail of 10 to 20 cm (3.9 to 7.9 in). They stand 69 to 91 cm (27 to 36 in) high at the shoulder. Body mass can range from 35 to 75 kg (77 to 165 lb). Males are slightly larger than females. The short, dense coat is slate grey in colour, sometimes with a bluish sheen. The underparts and backs of the legs are white, while the chest and fronts of the legs are black. Separating the grey back and white belly is a charcoal colored stripe. The ears are small, and the bridge of the nose is dark. The horns are found in both sexes, and are ridged on the upper surface. In males, they grow upwards, then turn sideways and curve backwards, looking somewhat like an upside-down moustache. They may grow to a length of 80 cm (31 in). In females, the horns are much shorter and straighter, growing up to 20 cm (7.9 in) long.
Taxonomy and evolution
- Chinese blue sheep, Pseudois nayaur szechuanensis
- Himalayan blue sheep, P. n. nayaur
- Helen Shan blue sheep, P. n. ssp.
- Dwarf blue sheep, P. schaeferi, sometimes considered to be a subspecies of the bharal
Biology and behaviour
The rutting of the bharal starts towards late November and continues until mid-January. During the rut, male bharal use multiple strategies for mating, namely tending, blocking, and coursing. The young are born in late June and July.
Bharal are active throughout the day, alternating between feeding and resting on the grassy mountain slopes. Due to their excellent camouflage and the absence of cover in their environment, bharal remain motionless when approached. Once they have been noticed, however, they scamper up to the precipitous cliffs, where they once again freeze, using camouflage to blend into the rock face. Population densities in Nepal were found to be 0.9–2.7 animals per square kilometer, increasing to a maximum of 10 animals per square kilometer in the winter, as herds congregate in valleys. Bharal are mainly grazers, but during times of scarcity of grass, they switch to herbs and shrubs. A high degree of diet overlap between livestock (especially donkeys) and bharal, together with density-dependent forage limitation, results in resource competition and a decline in bharal density. Where they overlap, they are the favored prey of snow leopards and leopards, with a few lambs falling prey to foxes or eagles.
The bharal is listed as least concern under the IUCN Red List.
Relationship with humans
Many Buddhist monasteries protect the bharal found around them, but lately, issues of crop damage caused by bharal have started to arise in areas such as the Spiti Valley.
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