Markhor Goat: the Serpent Killer of Islamabad

Without even saying good morning first, Yurie rushed into school and asked her friend Juliet if she had watched the National Geographic Channel show the night before.

“No, I was watching KBC,” replied Juliet. “Why do you ask?”

“You missed learning about the strangest animal I have ever seen—and I have watched every show on National Geographic!”

“What strange animal?” asked Juliet. “What makes this animal so unique?”  

Both friends started surfing the internet to gather more information about the peculiar animal that had been featured and noted down their findings. A couple of hours later, they exchanged their notes to quench their inquisitive minds’ thirst for knowledge.

Yurie stated that she first came to know about this animal—the markhor goat—from a New Year’s greetings card sent by a cousin living in Islamabad, Pakistan. She could not identify it at first glance. Upon enquiring, she was told by her cousin that it was Pakistan’s national animal. Yurie was astonished to hear this because she had not previously been aware of it. 

She discovered that the markhor goat weighs anywhere between 32 and 110kg. Measuring 132–186cm in length and 65–115cm in height at the shoulder, it has the highest maximum shoulder height of all species in the genus Capra (goats), and is only surpassed in length and weight by the Siberian ibex. 

Its coat is grizzled, light brown to black, smooth and short in summer, but growing longer and thicker in winter. Physical features can be used to distinguish between genders. Males have longer hair on the chin, throat, chest, and shanks, whereas females are redder in colour, with shorter hair, a short black beard, and no mane.

Juliet shared her findings on the habitat and ecology of the animal. The markhor goat is adapted to living in mountainous terrain at an elevation of 600–3600m. It typically inhabits scrub forests made up primarily of oak, pine, and junipers. Its diet shifts seasonally: in the spring and summer it grazes, but turns to browsing trees in winter, sometimes standing on its hind legs to reach the high branches.

During the British colonial era, the markhor goat was considered to be among the most challenging game species because of the danger involved in stalking and pursuing it in the high mountainous terrain. In The Rifle in Cashmere, Arthur Brinckman wrote that “a man who is a good walker will never wish for any finer sport than ibex and markhor shooting”. In India, it is illegal to hunt markhor, nevertheless, they are poached for their meat and horns, which are thought to have medicinal properties.

Both Yurie and Juliet wanted to make their report public in the forthcoming school journal, but felt that their findings would be of little interest unless they included some fascinating facts about the animal. Here is what they collected from different sources:

“The name ‘markhor’ is thought to be derived from the Persian language,” said Yurie, “where ‘mar-’ stands for ‘snake, serpent’ and the suffix ‘-khor’ means ‘eater’. This is interpreted to represent the animal’s alleged ability to kill snakes, even though there is no direct evidence of it.”

“Like cows, markhors are often found chewing their cud after eating,” added Yurie. “In the process of chewing, the cud often falls out of their mouth and onto the ground. Locals insist that this partially chewed cud helps treat snake bites and other wounds, so it’s popular among people who prefer natural remedies.” 

According to at least one scientist from the 1850s, male markhors have an unpleasant smell that’s even worse than that of a typical domestic goat. This sort of adaptation could help ward off predators or mark their territory and it could also help other individuals detect them from a distance.

Female markhors provide nourishment (milk) and protection to their kids, with male markhors playing a minimal role in parenting. The young are weaned at 5–6 months, but some kids will remain with their mothers for a considerably longer period if they are not ready to venture out on their own.

Although hunting markhors is mostly illegal, the government of Pakistan does issue four permits to hunt each of the three subspecies of markhor every year. Hence, a total of 12 markhor hunting licences are sold annually in open auctions. The proceeds are supposedly used to fund the conservation of the animal.

Yurie and Juliet were thrilled that they could gather such interesting information about an animal they had never heard of before, the national animal of another country, and enjoyed sharing it with their peers at school.

Image: Wikimedia commons