The elusive Nilgiri Tahrs

The majestic Nilgiri Tahr, also known as the Nilgiri ibex is endemic to the Nilgiri hills that form part of the southern area of the Western Ghats range running through Kerala and Tamil Nadu. In Tamil, it’s locally known as ‘varaiaadu’ with ‘wurrai’ meaning precipice and ‘aadu’ meaning goat. However, this ungulate animal is closer in nature to the sheep rather than the ibex or goat after which it’s been named.

The Nilgiri tahr also holds the prestigious position of being the Tamil Nadu State Animal. This southern state is the eleventh largest state in India area wise, and the sixth most populous state throughout the country. The Tamil people have a rich Dravidian culture that dates back to more than two millennia; the landscape is strewed with numerous beautiful temples of historical significance that attract tourists in their thousands throughout the year. The state is bordered on its eastern side by the sea and was a major trading port in the colonial era.

Getting to the Western Ghats is best done by car where you are at liberty to stop the car at your own liberty and enjoy the awesome beauty of nature as you climb into the cool hills. Taking a bus wouldn’t afford you that luxury and you would be missing out on some spectacular scenery. Aside from catching some rare glimpses of these elusive mountain goats, you can explore the numerous tea gardens, temples, waterfalls and enjoy the generally peaceful ambience of the quiet hills.

However, getting back to the tahrs, these fleet-footed animals are pretty comfortable living at heights of 1,200 to 2,600m above sea levels, with the females preferring the higher levels as compared to the males; this could be because the females are accompanied by young ones who aren’t strong enough to face predators. They earlier roamed the grasslands at lower levels but poaching these beautiful animals brought down their numbers to less than 200 by the beginning of the 20th century.

With such few members left, the tahr was declared an endangered species by the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act. A study conducted by the WWF in 2011had concluded that poaching, habitat destruction for farming and competition for food from domestic cattle and goats was posing a threat to the existence of the tahr. Eucalyptus cultivation and temple tourism are another couple of threats that the peaceful tahrs face, making them search for habitats higher up into the hills.

Though a recent census shows their numbers to have gone up to above 3000 now, strong steps need to be taken to safeguard their habitats. Protecting these tahrs would also result in an increase in a boost to the local tiger population.