Argali are the largest and arguably most regal wild sheep on the planet.
Inhabiting areas ranging from the Gobi desert to the Himalayas, these massive mountain ungulates are prized by hunters and revered by wildlife lovers.
They face many threats ranging from warming temperatures causing degradation of alpine habitat in Tajikistan to highly organized poaching in several countries.
A study conducted in the Ikh Nart Nature Preserve in Mongolia presents a real threat that is flying under the radar of wild sheep management.
According to researchers, they tracked collared argali for a minimum of two weeks each month, and survival was monitored daily with binoculars and telemetry. All collars were equipped with mortality sensors. When an individual animal was found dead, a necropsy was performed to determine the cause of death and the surrounding area was searched for additional clues.
They said in cases of predation, attempts were made to identify the predator species. Potential predators of argali include wolves, free-roaming dogs, foxes, and snow leopards.
Fox and snow leopard kills could normally be distinguished from those of other predators by a combination of signs, including the tracks, scat, and the distance between puncture wounds. However, kills made by either a wolf or by free-roaming or feral dogs could not be distinguished confidently in all cases, and were classified only as canid.
They said dog predation in the Ikh Nart Nature Reserve was responsible for between 2.7 and 34.2 percent of GPS (global positioning system)-collared argali deaths. Although only 2.7 percent were positively identified as dog kills, wolves were sighted just six times in eight years whereas free-roaming dogs were frequently observed.
We also found or observed five uncollared argali killed by free-roaming dogs during the study period. The deaths of radio-collared argali during this study therefore suggest that dogs may be a large source of mortality.
Feral dogs are present in a huge portion of the variety of argali subspecies range as well as that of snow sheep and wild goats.
Since these researchers have been extremely cautious in putting blame on dogs and have shown they are a big part of the mortality equation in this particular preserve it begs the following questions.
- How much do feral dogs impact wild sheep in other areas of Asia?
- Do feral dogs do some of the killing blamed on wolves in certain areas? (Remember researchers said feral dogs were “frequently seen” and wolves were seen only six times in eight years in the study area.)
- Could organized control of feral dogs have a positive and practical impact on argali?
Feral dogs are a threat to wildlife and to people. I have personally had two harrowing encounters with feral dogs and have spoken with wildlife managers as well as ranchers who have major problems with feral dogs.
I never considered them as a threat to argali but they might just be ones that are having a bigger impact than we ever imagined. Hopefully, research in other areas can shed light on this issue that would be much easier to address than things like climate change.
(Researchers for this study included Julie K. Young, Kirk A. Olson, Richard P. Reading, Sukh Amgalanbaatar, Joel Berger. The study was first published in Bioscience magazine.)