The Nilgiri Tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius) is one of South India’s most iconic mammals. It is known as ‘Varayadu’ in the Tamil and Malayalam languages (two closely related Dravidian languages spoken in the southernmost part of the South Asian peninsula). The word is made up of two elements – ‘varrai’ (precipice) and ‘aadu’ (goat). The name is a reference to the creature’s habitat – the mountains, hills and escarpments of southwestern India. They are found in the Nilgiri Hills, a range at the southern end of the Western Ghats (that run along India’s western coast). Nilgiri Tahrs roam the forests and grasslands located at altitudes between 2,600 to 1,200 m above the sea level. They were present over a much larger range, stretching as far north as the Brahmagiri Hills of southern Karnataka.

These handsome members of the Caprinae branch (goat-antelopes) of the Family Bovidae number around 3,000 and are classified as Endangered by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. They suffered greatly on account of the destruction of their habitat, and poaching for meat. Male Nilgiri Tahr can reach a height of one metre at the shoulder, and weigh as much as 100 kg. They live in bachelor herds outside of the rutting season that lasts for two months during the rainy season (July-August). Competitors armed with impressive 40 cm-long horns can battle for hours to gain access to the smaller and darker females. Once the mating is over the males return to the lower slopes while the females converge in the upper reaches of the Western Ghats. The young are born six months later.

It was earlier believed that Nilgiri Tahr were closely related to the Himalayan Tahr (Hemitragus jemlahicus). But the latter is more closely related to the genus Capra that includes the domesticated goat (Capra aegagrus) and its wild relatives. The former, on the other hand, is more closely related to the genus Ovis that includes wild and domesticated sheep (Ovis aries). This would make the ‘Precipice Goat’ more of a sheep than a goat. According to the IUCN Red List, they are to be found in the Nilgiri Hills, Silent Valley, Siruveni Hills, Elival Mala, Nelliampathi Hills, Top Slip and Parambikulam, Anamala, Swamaimala, Eravikulam National Park, High Range, Palani Hills, Highwavy Mountains, Mudaliar Oothu, Vellakaltheri, Ashambu Hills, and Thiruvannamalai.

Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, shows a Nilgiri Tahr perched atop a rock in Eravikulam National Park in the South Indian state of Kerala. It was uploaded by Mr. Kesavamurthy N. A Pallid Harrier (Circus macrourus) can be seen flying overhead.