Altai Argali wild sheep [2023]

Photo by Sailyugemsky National Park

The Altai argali, the largest species of wild sheep, ranks among the most majestic specimens of wildlife worldwide. Recognized for their impressive, spiraling horns that can grow up to six feet long and alone weigh up to 59 lbs (27 kg), the argali is considered by many of Greater Altai’s peoples 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). 

Altai argali migrate across the boundary mountain ranges of Mongolia, Kazakhstan, China, and Russia, with the majority of the population living in western Mongolia. Russia’s Altai and Tuva Republics (which border Mongolia) are key habitat areas, with home territories located on the slopes of Sailyugem, Chikhachev, Mongun-Taiga, Tsagan-Shibetu ridges.  The sheep migrate to Mongolia in the winter, where snow cover is lower, and return to Russia by summer.

As a high mountain species, these sheep live in elevations from 980 to 19,030 ft., at the upper reaches of vegetation.  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 Bogd National Park, and Ikh Nart Nature Reserve staff, researchers, and conservationists in Russian and Mongolian Altai work independently and collectively to study Altai argali, address short-term threats, and develop long-term conservation strategies. They monitor and document argali movements, population dynamics, and reproductive success, in addition to collecting data on poaching and other threats negatively affecting populations.  Because the wild sheep are highly migratory across the region’s international borders, researchers often collaborate to conduct simultaneous surveys to ensure accurate data.

Similarly, cooperation between governments is essential for conserving the sheep.  In 2018, Russia and Mongolia signed an agreement to monitor Altai argali in their transboundary zone.

In December 2022 Russia’s Ministry of Natural Resources approved a conservation strategy for Altai argali.  The strategy seeks to guarantee and eliminate barriers to the sheep’s smooth migration across the Russia-Mongolia border, among other measures.

Conservation Success

Efforts to preserve the Altai argali over the last decade have proven to be steps in the right direction, bringing some hope for the species.  According to the most recent survey conducted in November 2022, the argali population on Sailyugem Ridge and neighboring territories numbered 2,488 individual sheep, approximately 30 percent higher than in 2021.  Even more encouraging, populations have increased fourfold since the first census was conducted in 2014, when researchers counted 525 argali.