We hunters are uniquely fortunate in that our travels often take us to beautiful places. I’m sure we all have our favorites, but I’m hard-pressed to think of a more magnificent setting than the valley of the Rangitata River, central South Island, flowing from the Southern Alps eastward, joining the Pacific Ocean at Timaru. Upriver, the Rangitata is a broad alluvial valley with tall ridges north and south, true Hobbit country. Of course, like so many places in New Zealand, part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy was filmed there.
If you’re a fan, some of the Edoras set lay within sight of the ridges we hunt. With no apology, I’ll admit LOR isn’t my genre—but I climbed those ridges before the sets were built, and I’ve climbed them again long after most were dismantled. Honest, if I was making an action-fantasy movie that needed a wild, remote, eerie, gorgeous and thoroughly spectacular setting, it’s a place I’d choose. Instead, it’s a place I’ve climbed many times seeking my personal choice for the greatest game animal in the South Pacific, the Himalayan tahr.
Through the 19th Century the Duke of Bedford’s English estate, Woburn, became a reserve for numerous species introduced from Asia. Woburn’s captive herd saved Pere David’s deer from extinction and is the ancestor of all Pere David’s deer in the world today, including back into the wild in China. Muntjac deer were first introduced at Woburn and are now thought to be the most numerous deer in England. Chinese water deer, also first introduced at Woburn, are also now free-ranging in several counties in central England. In 1904 the Duke of Bedford presented eight tahr to New Zealand. Only five made it safely, and were released near Mount Cook. In 1909 eight more tahr made the long journey safely and were released in the same area. These 13 animals together formed the nucleus herd that have spread through much of the Southern Alps and now number into the tens of thousands.
We hunters consider them “goats,” which is close, but they are not true Capra, having their own genus, Hemitragus, taken from the Greek for “half-goat.” Like our Rocky Mountain goat they were cheated in the horn department, with short, very thick horns. As with our goats (also not true Capra but their own genus, Oreamnos), much of the tahr’s attraction lies in the coat, silky and luxurious, with an incredible neck mane that the males flare in mating display. Far up on a rocky pinnacle, the bull tahr is truly like a lion in winter, golden mane glinting in the sun. Long fascinated by the tahr, I have been fortunate to hunt them in their native Himalayas as well as introduced populations here and there. Without question New Zealand’s Southern Alps is the best place in the world to hunt tahr!
I first hunted them on the precipitous West Coast 30 years ago, but since then I’ve hunted them above the Rangitata, not frequently, but for sure every few years! Tahr remain widespread in the South Island’s high country and there are many good places, but aside from captivating beauty, what I like about this area is the tahr are accessible without helicopter assist. It’s not an easy climb, but it’s a do-able climb. So, every now then, I find an excuse.
Regrettably, I no longer have a valid reason to climb after a bull tahr for myself, but I’ve climbed up with Donna, with my daughters, with friends, and always with outfitter Chris Bilkey…who makes it look a whole lot easier than it really is. Sometimes we go up on the river side, with that amazing valley behind and below us. Other times we go up the southern slope, with the Rangitata hidden until the crest is reached. This is a shame because, stalking tahr, sometimes you never top out…but the southern exposure is also magnificent, just not as dramatic!
Just now, in mild mid-April weather, we hunted up the steep northern exposure with the river valley behind us. Unusually, we glassed several good males, singles and in twos and threes, feeding along the upper edges of the brush line, about as low as I’ve seen bull tahr. Naturally, we weren’t looking for bulls! With no need to have another tahr mounted, we were looking for older nannies that should be removed. This is an ongoing process on Bilkey’s private land concession: Same climb, same stalk, same selection process, similar shot, just smaller horns at the conclusion.
The total population of Himalayan tahr on New Zealand’s South Island isn’t known. A current estimate is 35,600 on public conservation land, certainly with thousands more on private land. New Zealand authorities have long been “nervous” about the impact of their introduced species on native fauna and flora. Back in 1993 the Himalayan Tahr Control Plan decreed that “10,000” was the proper number on public land. Current numbers are unarguably much higher. Tahr love steep, rough country so accurate counts are difficult and often hampered by mountain weather. In ideal habitat with no predators, tahr are certainly overpopulated in some areas…but exactly what to do about it is controversial. And, since the precise population isn’t known, neither is ideal carrying capacity and thus the scientifically correct “target” number.
Last year New Zealand Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage called for an “urgent cull” of tahr across central South Island, claiming their numbers had reached “destructive levels.” The initial target was 10,000 tahr to be removed by aerial gunning on public land, with the target later raised to 17,000, which would reduce by half the tahr believed to exist on public land.
New Zealand’s sportsmen and outfitting industry consider their tahr a valuable resource rather than a noxious pest…and they mobilized quickly to combat what they viewed as a hurried and poorly planned mass execution. The Tahr Liaison Control Group represents hunting interests and conservation groups, including in its membership the NZ Deer Stalkers Association, Game Animal Council, Professional Hunting Guides Association…and our own Safari Club International.
The NZ Deer Stalkers Association said the proposed cull was rushed, based on slender evidence, “and could spell the demise of a unique and valuable trophy herd.” Spokesman Bill O’Leary went on to say: “We acknowledge that tahr numbers are above the level set in the 1993 Tahr Plan, and some carefully planned, highly selective culling needs to be done—but better data and more detailed planning are needed rather than killing so many tahr with undue haste.” Aside from the many New Zealanders who pursue tahr “DIY” on public land, the annual harvest by visiting hunters is between 2,000 and 2,500, primarily mature bulls. O’Leary said further that a herd of 10,000 tahr remaining after unselective culling would not be able to provide a sustainable harvest of mature bulls. Each bull tahr taken by a visitor brings about $14,000 into New Zealand’s economy.
At this moment, New Zealand’s tahr have received a stay of execution…purely as a result of tragedy. The cull was started, but delayed by a horrific fatal helicopter crash at the outset. Currently the proposed cull has been suspended by changes in New Zealand’s firearms laws, which now prohibit use of semiautomatic rifles, considered by experts almost essential for an effective cull of this magnitude.
Meantime, without question tahr remain overpopulated in some areas and continue to increase. Far above the Rangitata, Donna, daughter Caroline, and I enjoyed an awesome non-trophy tahr hunt, taking several ancient nannies, almost toothless with more than a dozen annular growth rings on their stubby horns. The overpopulation is an issue that must be dealt with and, in time, undoubtedly will be, almost certainly not to everyone’s satisfaction. However, the presence of old animals like these is an indicator that, at least right now above the Rangitata, the herd is healthy!--Craig Boddington