Himalayan tahr in New Zealand
Hunting Himalayan tahr in the South Island of New Zealand is not for the faint-hearted, says Peter Ryan, but for those who are brave enough to take on the unforgiving terrain and unpredictable conditions, it is incredibly rewarding, and in more ways than one.
It is a time almost beyond our imagination now. The electrical outlet makes its debut at the World’s Fair and will soon light the world. John Rowlands, once a poor and abandoned infant, passes from a turbulent life of adventure and African exploration as Sir Henry Morton Stanley. Number plates are introduced in the United Kingdom for the first time, and Herbrand Russell, the 11th Duke of Bedford, is quietly planning to do something that nobody has ever done before. The year is 1904.
His goal was a bold one, to send six Himalayan tahr from the zoological gardens of Woburn Abbey (some only captured in recent times from the highlands of India) to a British colony on the far side of the globe. To reach the South Island of New Zealand, the small herd would make the longest journey ever undertaken by an alpine animal. It did not pass without incident. They left Plymouth on the SS Corinthic, a steamship of the White Star line. For reasons lost to history the tahr were placed, with surprising trust and optimism, under the care of the ship’s butcher. During the journey, one of the bulls escaped and raced around the deck before finally flinging himself into the ocean, the first and only tahr in history to drown at sea. The herd was released at Mount Cook – known to Maori as Aoraki – among the glaciers and snow-capped mountains of the Southern Alps.
The introduction was successful – a second shipment was dispatched in 1909 and by the late 1920s tahr were established enough for licenced seasons.
It wasn’t always smooth sailing. As an introduced species, tahr numbers have been controlled in different ways over the years – they are excellent on the table and have been sold as specialist game meat – but today there is government recognition of their recreational value. The population is thriving and trophy quality is high. Like chamois, the difference between a good and a great tahr isn’t much. For most a 12-inch bull is the accepted trophy benchmark, a 13 is remarkable. Anything over that and it’s time to break out your best Champagne.
But there is far, far more to tahr than the tape measure. A mature bull has immense character and charisma – the fighting ridge that runs down the front of the horns may be scarred from combat, and that mid-winter coat is something special. In June the rut is at its peak and the bulls, much larger than the nannies, develop a huge ruff of long hair. (Along with lion they are one of the few animals to possess a true mane.) It is then in the depths of the southern winter that they can be seen standing on high bluffs, letting the cold Antarctic winds breeze through those deep coats, or plunging down near-vertical rock on soft, springy hooves.
The terrain in which they live isunquestionably some of the most beautiful on Earth, familiar to most of the world through the Lord of the Rings films. It’s wise to accept one fact up front and it’s a simple one. Tahr hunting is not like sitting in a tree stand. The mountain slopes seem endless and alpine weather is fickle. Fortunately, New Zealand is blessed with many fine guides. This is a game played with top-quality optics and if visibility is low the day can be lost. It can be relatively easy, or there can be exposed crossings, snow and avalanche risk. A bull that is not cleanly dropped may never be recovered. You can die chasing these creatures. Many have.
My last hunt was fairly typical. Setting out from a basic hut, we climbed and glassed, glassed and climbed. The trick with almost all mountain game is to gain height and keep it. Alpine animals look down for danger, seldom do they look up. Sidling across rock and sliding around loose scree, your attention is usually on the next piece of ground, but occasionally you’ll pause and catch a glimpse of the vast valleys that typify tahr country. They might be the wide-open spaces on the eastern side of the Alps, each with silver ribbons of braided river at the bottom. Or it might be the thick tangles of the West Coast, whose remote bush can hold monster bulls. One thing is clear – just being there is half the trophy.
We round a spur and there below us, only a stone’s throw away, is a young bull with nannies. That’s another of the wonderful things about them, their unpredictability. Many bulls are taken at very long range, others can be encountered within bow shot. You just never know. I look at them through the sharp optics of the Swarovski. They’re so close that every big guard hair, every age ring in the bull’s horns is bright and clear. Then above us there is a clatter in the rocks. Very slowly I turn to watch a tiny young tahr sauntering along a knife-edge ridge line. It’s exposed ground but the youngster might as well be walking on a footpath. Tahr are absolutely fearless around sheer vertical drops.
I move just slightly and the inevitable happens, a shrill whistle from a nanny standing sentinel on a boulder. They’re gone, thick coats shuddering as they bounce from one rock face to another.
Later in the day we spot a decent herd grazing on the tough alpine vegetation. The wind is blowing uphill, as it tends to do in these valleys during the day, so out with the spotting scope. Despite the heavy snow above us the warm noonday air dances and shimmers in the glass, but one thing is immediately obvious – there is a mature bull down there, and he has no idea we’re up here. In tahr hunting terms that’s like winning the lottery. A quick check of the .308, stow the spotter and the long, slow process of closing the gap begins.
We duck behind a crease in the side of the mountain and all is well at first, but the rock is loose and where it is not there is spaniard, a knee-high needle-tipped plant that is the curse of Kiwi alpine hunters. A small rock trickles down and begins a miniature landslide. As far as we know the tahr have not moved, and I pray that their long familiarity with the sounds of the mountain will mean that they ignore our noise.
Peeking over a rocky ledge the relief is palpable. They’re still there, and I can even see the sentry for once. My heart is thumping and it’s not just the exertion of the stalk. The old Swazi anorak – named, appropriately enough, for the very animal we’re chasing – is gently eased up onto the rocks as a rest. Quietly lift the bolt and watch the brass slide into the breach. Big breath. Then another. Slow it all down. The world compresses to a very small space – just you, the rifle and the bull. He’s got a young male grazing slightly above him, obscuring his chest. Another big breath. He steps and the junior steps with him – still nothing.
Then it happens.
The boss gives the youngster a sharp nudge in the ribs, a clear message to get off his grazing, and junior skips nimbly over the edge of an unseen chute, gone in an instant. The old bull steps up to peer down at him. He too could be gone in a single bound, and there is no way of knowing what lies down there.
You don’t hear the report. There is a blur as the rifle comes down out of recoil, but he’s nowhere to be seen. You’re up, running now on the loose rock, but he’s right there. Later you find that the Norma Oryx bullet has done its job perfectly, lodging under the thick, tough skin of the far shoulder.
You approach the bull quietly, marvelling at the growth rings on his old horns, the fighting scars, the almost-vanished teeth, and suddenly the valley springs back into shape around you. He’s a true mountain warrior who spent his dozen or so years in tahr paradise, and he left it never knowing the grim starvation that awaited his next winter.
Some think that because tahr are goat-like that they must stink like some reeking domestic billy. It’s not even remotely true – you run your fingers through the thick, coarse mane, along those etched horns that no other hand has touched before, and it strikes you. A bull tahr smells of alpine herbs and dry stone and, well, pure wilderness.
A century after their arrival it has become a tradition for many Kiwi hunters to carry the cape and horns down the mountain on their shoulders, a riff on the Afghan rebel look. It’s practical and, I’m not ashamed to say, full of pride. There is a lot of achievement in chasing these mountain monarchs on foot among the ridges and snow, but that custom has a small sidelight that I’ve never shared with anyone before.
Just occasionally when I’m at home and pottering with a few chores I’ll pass that anorak hanging on its hook by the mud room door. If there’s a moment to spare I’ll pick up a sleeve and breathe in the leftover scent of something subtle and elusive, something that speaks of the vast silent valleys, the rush of clear cold water on rock, the harrier hawk wheeling on his thermal against a backdrop of snow and piercing blue sky. I breathe it and am there again.
A journey to the garden of the gods, up high and at the very ends of the Earth, is the gift of a lifetime. But understand one thing first – it will never let you go.
If you want to go...
New Zealand has good infrastructure and accommodation. There are plenty of options for non-hunting partners – adventure tours, fly fishing and vineyard tours are common. Check the member list on the New Zealand Professional Hunting Guides Association website as a starting point. Be honest with your guide about your fitness and confidence in alpine conditions.
When: Tahr may be hunted at any time of year but the coat is at its peak in the southern winter, May to September.
Equipment: Rifles in the .270, .308, 7mm magnum class using controlled expansion projectiles. Movement of firearms into and out of New Zealand is quick and easy.