Altai Argali wild sheep

Thanks to Sailyugemsky National Park for permission to use this image.

The Altai argali, the largest wild sheep species, is one of the most majestic species worldwide. Recognized for their massive, spiraling horns that can grow up to six feet long and alone may weigh 59 lbs (27 kg), the argali sheep is considered by people in Altai to be a sacred symbol and national treasure.

The name “argali” translates to “wild sheep” in the Mongolian language. The Altai argali is one of nine subspecies of Ovis ammon, all of which are classified as near threatened and decreasing in population on the Red List of Threatened Species maintained by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). 

Argali migrate freely across the boundary mountain ranges of Mongolia, Kazakhstan, China, and Russia. The majority of the population lives mostly in western Mongolia. As a high mountain species, argali prefer elevations between 980-19,030 feet, at the upper elevations for plants.  The argali is well adapted to living in harsh conditions with low temperatures and scarce food supplies. 

Why are argali important?

Like the snow leopard, another inhabitant of Central Asian mountains, the argali is an important indicator of the overall biodiversity and ecosystem health in the Altai-Sayan Ecoregion. Effective protection of argali helps to preserve other species in the region.

What are the biggest threats?

In Russia and Mongolia, habitat loss due to climate change, competition with domestic livestock, infrastructure development, as well as poaching and over-hunting, are the gravest threats facing argali. The sheep are attractive to trophy hunters and poachers seeking to sell derivatives in the Asian medicinals market.  Licensed argali hunting in Mongolia is managed by the government, but the permitting process is poorly regulated and corrupt.

They are an important prey species for predators, including wolves and snow leopards.

What is being done to protect them?

Altaisky Federal Nature Reserve, Ubsunurskaya Basin Nature Reserve, Sailyugemsky National Park, Tavan Bodg National Park, and Ikh Nart Nature Reserve staff, researchers, and conservationists in Russian and Mongolian Altai work independently and collectively to study Altai argali. They address short-term threats and develop long-term conservation strategies. Together, they monitor and document argali movements, population dynamics, and reproductive success, in addition to collecting data on poaching and other threats.