The Afghan Urial has the greatest distribution range of all urials. But the Afghan Urial in the narrower sense has meanwhile become an almost mythical animal. During four decades of war in Afghanistan hardly anybody has dared to visit the country and look for urial and other wildlife. And it is not clear, how „the real Afghan Urials“ are doing. Even photos of live animals are extremely rare. Some of these treasures – dated ca. 1971 – and other basic information are presented here.
English common name: Afghan Urial (1), Afghan Red Sheep (Tierpark Berlin).
German: Afghanisches Kreishornschaf (1), Kreishornschaf (Tierpark Berlin),
French: Urial de l‘ Hindu-Kush (1), Mouflon afghan (3)
Spanish: Urial del l‘ Hindu-Kush (1)
Iranian: Quch-e-afghani (1)
Authors who incorporate populations from the extrem north of Iran and Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and the south of Iran and Pakistan to the range of the Afghan Urial also use these names: Trans-Caspian Urial (O. v. arkal), Turkmenian Urial, Blanford’s or Baluchi Urial (O. v. blanfordi), (3)
Other (putative) scientific names and synonyms
Ovis orientalis cycloceros, Hutton 1842 (1, 6)
The name orientalis is based on a hybrid population in north-central Iran and is not usable. (3)
Ovis arkal, Eversmann 1850 (4)
Ovis arkar, Brandt 1852 (4)
Ovis vignei varenzovi, Satunin 1905 (4)
Ovis cycloceros (3, 6)
Ovis ammon cycloceros (Tierpark Berlin)
Ovis blanfordi, Hume, 1877.
Type locality: Hills above the Bolan Pass, near Kelat, Baluchistan in West Pakistan (6)
Ovis bochariensis, Nasonov, 1914.
Type locality: Baljuan, Russian Turkestan (approx. 38° 20′ N, 69° 30′ E) (6)
„Kreishornschafe“ from Tierpark Berlin are labelled as „Afghan Red Sheep“ and „Ovis ammon cycloceros“ (2018/03) , but they are actually treated as Arkal (Wolfgang Dreier/Tierpark Berlin, pers. comm.) Subsequently the labelling has let to confusion. For example Castelló (2016) has used images of these „Tierpark Arkals“ to illustrate his Afghan Urial on page 388. Hence his Afghan Urials and Transcaspian Urials are not distinguishable.
Ovis vignei cycloceros, Hutton 1842 or Ovis cycloceros
Type locality: Huzzareh (= Hazara) Hills near Kandahar, Afghanistan (6)
Afghan Urial taxonomy is controversial.
Either authors follow the concept of treating the Afghan Urial (Ovis vignei cycloceros) as a subspecies of the urial (Ovis vignei). (1, 2) Or authors group various phenotyps like Afghan Urial (Ovis vignei cycloceros), Transcaspian Urial (Ovis vignei arkal) and Baluchi Urial (Ovis vignei blanfordi) and make it a full species: „Afghan Urial“ (Ovis cycloceros). (3, 4, 5)
Advantage of the „subspecies approach“: Close affinity of neighbouring taxa remains clearer, hence the taxonomic system as such remains more readily comprehensible. Advantage of the „splitters approach“: Differences between closely related taxa – even though they might be small – are given prominence, hence it does better justice to depict biodiversity.)
„Splitters“ rely on the work of Groves and Grubb (2011). In case of the Afghan Urial (Ovis cycloceros) their specimens (n = 36) were from within the range assigned to O. c. arkal.“ (4) That means Groves and Grubb have not distinguished between Afghan Urial in the narrower sense and Transcaspian Urial.
Reasons for splitting Afghan Urial from neighbouring phenotypes
Groves and Grubb (2011) have analysed that O. cycloceros arkal, O. bochariensis, and O. vignei are, in fact, distinct. Skull length and breadth, and the frontal arc, contrasted with the low frontal chord, distinguish O. cycloceros arkal, especially from the Bukhara Urial (O. bochariensis). (4)
Table 1: Scull measurements (mm) of O. cycloceros arkal and O. bochariensis
|skull length||scull breadth||frontal arc||frontal chord|
|N||10 ⚡||10 ⚡||8 ⚡||8 ⚡|
One basic information that can be extracted from this table: The sculls of O. cycloceros arkal are on average 3 cm longer and 1 cm broader than sculls of O. bochariensis. For Groves and Grubb (2011) this is one of the main arguments to seperate the two phenotypes as distict species. (⚡: survey sample size is very small!)
Subspecies: Following the „splitters“, the species Afghan Urial is seperated into two subspecies:
– the Afghan Urial in the narrower sense (Ovis cycloceros cycloceros) – Central and Northeast Afghanistan and West and South Pakistan.
– the Trans-Caspian Urial (Ovis cycloceros arkal) – Northeast Iran, South and Northwest Turkmenistan, and West Kazakhstan. (3)
How to distinguish the two subspecies: It is said that O. c. cycloceros has a black ruff and a white bib, while in O. c. arkal both parts – ruff and bib – are white (3). But keep in mind: Other urial phenotypes like Baluchi Urial, Punjab Urial, Bukhara Urial and even the Alborz Red Sheep also have the black-and-white-combi.
The Afghan Urial is said to have a greater distribution than any other urial. On the other hand it is assumed that it lives in fragmented populations and rarely outside protected areas. (3) Therefore it is likely that the actual ranges are just a fraction of the red areas in the map below.
Afghanistan: Current data is not available. Damm and Franco (2014) hold the opinion that Afghan Urial occurs in most central provinces from west to east. (1) Sources from 1977 state that it occurs in the Arjar Valley Wildlife Reserve in Afghanistan (Shank et al., 1977), and seasonally (summer) in Kohe Burocinal and Kohe Argosa nearby the Band-e Amir National Park (Shank and Larsson, 1977). (7) Most populations in Afghanistan have probably been extirpated. (3)
Pakistan: (Kyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Baluchistan, FATA) (1); Pakistani protected areas reported to contain mostly very small numbers of Afghan urial include: NWFP – Dera Ismail Khan District: Sheikh Buddin NP (Malik, 1987, Zool. Survey Dept., 1987); Kohat District: Borraka WS (Malik, 1987, Zool. Survey Dept., 1987) Rakh Topi GR (Malik, 1987); Peshawar District: Nizampur GR (Malik, 1987); District Abbottabad: Surrana GR. BaZz&istarz – Las Bela District: Hingol NP, Dureji WS, Khurkhera WS (Baluchistan Forest Dept., 1990), Dureji WS (Zool. Survey Dept., no date); Khuzdar District: Dhrun NP, Chorani WS (Zool. Survey Dept., no date); Kharan District: Ras Koh GR, Raghai Rakshan WS (Baluchistan Forest Dept., 1990); Kalat District: Hazarganji-Chiltan NP, and possibly Sashan WS (Baluchistan Forest Dept., 1990); Quetta District: Hazarganji-Chiltan NP (Baluchistan Forest Dept., 1990; though presence in this NP not confirmed by Virk, 1991); Sibi District: Ziarat Juniper WS (Baluchistan Forest. Dept., 1990); Pishin District: Masalakh WS (Baluchistan Forest Dept., 1990). Sind – Dadu District: Kirthar NP (Sind Wildlife Management Board, no date); Karachi District: Kirthar NP (Sind Wildlife Management Board, no date). (7)
Iran: (Razavi and South Khorasan) (1)
Historically the main populations of the Afghan Urial covered a vast area stretching from easternmost Iran over central Afghanistan into Pakistan. The Afghan Urial range may have come into contact with the Transcaspian Urial and Bukharan Urial in the North and Northeast, and the Baluchi Urial in the South. The prescent more contracted distribution ranges of all four phenotypes are almost certainly seperated. All Afghan Urial populations throughout the entire range are fragmented and scattered across suitable habitat. (1)
Heptner et al (1966) consider sheep from the Kopet-Dag, the mountain range in the Northeast of Iran bordering Turkmenistan, as Afghan Urial too. (2)
Some authors incorporate not only populations from the extrem north of Iran, but even those from further north, like Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan. And they incorporate populations from the south of Iran and Pakistan as well. (3)
In general there is great variation in body size of Afghan Urial. Males from north-eastern Iran in protected areas without livestock and in lush rangelands can attain weights of 85 kg; males from desert populations in southern Pakistan rarely exceed 40 kg. (3)
length / head-body: somewhat smaller than the Transcaspian Urial (1); 135-160 cm – males; 120-134 cm – females (3)
shoulder height: 75-81 cm male, 72 cm female (5) 76-81 cm (1), 94-97 – males; 82-88 cm – females (3) – very contrasting figures!
weight: 36 kg male, 26 kg female (5), rams 73-80 kg (1) – very contrasting figures!
tail: 10,5-11 (5)
Since the various authors do not coincide on how to define the distribution range, measurements are not comparable!
Coloration / pelage
upper parts: yellowish-red or fawn-brown (1); reddish-buff to yellowish-brown (6) or light brown (6)
saddle patch in rams: generally very indistinct, or lacking (1), but rams with distinct black saddle patches have been observed (1, 6). Males in the winter coat from north-eastern Iran and southern Turkmenistan lack a saddle patch, but those from eastern populations usually possess a saddle patch of variable size. (3)
underparts: dirty white (1)
limbs: insides of limbs, „knees“ (carpus), fore pasterns and buttocks are dirty white; frontal parts of forelegs: greyish (1);
face: bluish-gray (1) with lighter markings around the eyes and above the muzzle (1)
neck: white bib, black neck ruff (6); mature rams tend to have a luxuriant black neck ruff sprinkled with white hair and a white bib extending from the jaws to the chest. (1) In general, western races have a white throat and eastern forms have a white throat ruff and a black neck ruff. (3)
summer: hair is stiff and short (1); winter: coarser and less smooth, and of a darker shade of brown. The upper parts become interspersed with white in old individuals. (1)
Rams have horns which often develop more than a complete arc when viewed from the side. The tips usually bend slightly outwards. The horn growth is normally homonymous (1, 4), but heteronymous horn types are also found in the same populations. The horns are triangular in shape and strongly corrugated. (1)
horn length: markedly larger and heavier than in neighboring species / subspecies (measurements combine O. c. cycloceros and O. c. arkal) (4). The longest horns of O. c. cycloceros are 105,4 cm (1, 6) – have been recorded from heads originating from the old Waziristan province of British India (now part of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas. (1)
Today horns over 83 cm in length and 24 cm in girth may be considered very good. (1) This means that hunting pressure has reduced horn length in Afghan Urial populations.
Table 2: Horn length, basal circumference and tip to tip spread of record trophies of six urial subspecies (after Damm and Franco, 2014; measurements in centimeters)
|horn length (med.)||horn length (max)||basal circum-ference (med.)||basal circum-ference (max)||tip to tip spread (med.)||tip to tip spread (max)|
|Trans-caspian Urial||92,4 (n=326)||118 (Iran), 92 (Turk-menistan), 113, 106,||27||31,2||44||–|
|Bukhara Urial||70,5 (n=39)||over 95 (Kugitang, Turkm. , mid-1990s)||24,8||–||–||28,3|
|Afghan Urial||77,8 (n=34)||105,4 (Waziri-stan, 1909); 83 (today)||24,8 (n = 34)||30,5 (Waziristan, 1909); 24 (today)||40,3 (n=6)||61,3|
|Baluchi Urial||74,3 (n=71)||87,6 (Sindh, 1906); 86 (Balochistan, 2005); 83,8 (Sindh, 2008)||22,5 (n=71)||–||22,2 (n=3)||40,6|
|Punjab Urial||70,8 (n=66); 66,2 (since 1972, n=44||98,4 (Attock, 1927); 76,2 (since 1972)||23,8 (n=66)||24,8 (Attock, 1927)||–||24,1 (Attock, 1927); between 11,4-42,5|
|Ladakh Urial||81,3 (n=33 (Rowland Ward; before 1925)||100,3 (1921), 91,4||26,9; 27,6 (n=33 (Rowland Ward; before 1925)||30,5 (1921)||31,9 (n=28)||10,8-48,3 (n=28)|
The Afghan Urial occurs in a greater variation of habitats than any other species of urial. Populations occur from near sea level to avove 3000 m, but rarely exceed 4000 m. Many occur in degraded habitats grazed by domestic livestock. They usually use rounded, broken terrain at lower elevations, but readily access precipitous terrain as escape cover. (3)
Urial densities can vary from less than 1 individual/km² in poor quality habitat overgrazed by domestic livestock to 4,5 individual/km² in good habitat. (3)
Between May 2008 and October 2009, Shank and Alavi (2010) saw 55 urial throughout the Baminyan Plateau, Central Afghanistan, at elevations over 3000 m. (Band-e-Amir National Park, Afghanistan’s first officially designated protected area, lies on the southern boundary of the plateau.) Apparently some of the areas are used as summering, others as wintering grounds. Local informants reported that in April or May, urial move into the core lambing and summer range in the central part of the plateau with the key areas being Sugholugh, the Syahkawhal drainage and the Dare-e-Zirk/Kul-e-kawhal area. (1)
Preadators include Leopards (Panthera pardus), Wolves (Canis lupus), Golden Jackals (Canis aureus), Red Foxes (Vulpes vulpes), and feral and domestic dogs. (3)
Food and feeding
This species is an opportunistic herbivore, feeding on grasses and shrubs. (3)
sexual maturity reached: most males by age two, but they do not participate in the rut until 4-5 years of age (3)
mating season: november-december in colder climates; august in southern Pakistan (3)
parturition: April to May in Central Afghanistan (1); February in southern Pakistan (3)
first year of parturition: age two (3)
number of births: twinning can be common, but in years of low precipitation, single offspring prevail. Under extreme drought conditions, females can fail to reproduce and there is high lamb mortality. In contrast, in areas with high forage production, productivity is high. (3)
Mostly active during morning and afternoons. During the warmest period of the day, they seek thermal cover in tall vegetation. (3)
Movements, home range and social organisation
Except for the mating season, adult males and females segregate into seperate groups. Ram groups are composed ot two-year-olds and older males. Female groups consist of ewes, lambs, yearlings and occasionally younger rams. Ram groups usually number less than 30, but female groups can exceed 100. In areas with high populations, ewe groups consist of 10-49 animals. Adult rams form dominance hierarchies, with older, larger rams dominant over younger rams. Dominance hierarchies probably also occur among ewes. (3)
Populations in all countries have greatly declined. Protected areas rarely have populations exceeding 500. (3)
Afghanistan: no estimate
Turkmenistan: The estimate for the total population in the late 1980s and early 1990s was between 10,500 and 11,000 urial. Numbers had increased slightly from the estimates of 7,000 to 9,000 made in the 1970s (Babaev et al., 1978), when there were 2,000 in the Kopet-Dagh Reserve, with about 1,500 in the Badkhyz Reserve (Gorelov, 1978). Although about half the total numbers probably still occur within protected areas, outside them these urial exist mainly in relatively low densities. Recent evidence reports a significant decline in numbers in the eastern Kopet Dagh and in Badkhyz, with only 150 to 200 in Big Balkhan and 300 to 350 in the western Kopet Dagh (V. Lukarevsky, in litt., 1994).
Pakistan: A total population census based on surveys is not available. In the past, Roberts (1985) estimated that perhaps 2,500 to 3,000 Afghan urial lived in Baluchistan, with 1,000 (0.2/km²) inhabiting the Torghar hills of Toba Kakar range (District Zhob) according to Mitchell (1988). About 150 animals inhabit the Takatu hills near Quetta (A. Ahmad, unpubl. Data), and the situation in the Dureji hills (District Zhob) may be a little better (Virk, 1991). Malik (1987) estimated a total of 310 to 340 Afghan urial for the whole of NWFP, whereas the NWFP Forest Department (NWFP 1992) reported a more recent total of only 80 urial (68 from Kohat, two from Mardan and 10 from Abbottabad), suggesting a severe decline over five years. For Sind Province, a census carried out by Mirza and Asghar (1980) estimated a population of 430 urial for Kirthar NP. Based on a census in the Mari-Lusar-Manghtar range and in the Karchat mountains in 1987, K. Bollmann (unpubl. data) estimated between 800 and 1,000 urial (0.26-0.32/km²) for the whole of Kirthar NP. About 150 to 200 animals live in the Mari-Lusar-Manghtar range, and 100 to 150 in the Karchat mountains; i.e. 1.7 to 2.5 urial/km² (Edge and Olson-Edge, 1987). The overall density within the subspecies’ distribution is probably much lower than this. (7)
Their greatest threats are competition with livestock and illegal hunting. (3)
Afghanistan: On 20 March 2005, Afghan President Hamid Karzai issued Presidential Decree No. 53 banning hunting in any form. (1) In Afghanistan, urials are placed on the country’s first Protected Species List in 2009, prohibiting all hunting and trading of this species within the country. (7) But the ban is almost universally ignored. (1) Most populations in Afghanistan have probably been extirpated. (3)
However, since the increasingly effective enforcement of the Law on Firearms, Ammunitions and Explosives, people have become wary of openly carying firearms. Accordingly, urial populations are considered to have increased in the past several years. However, hunting and trapping of urial continues mostly by a few individuals who attain local prestige as hunters, and by powerful government officals (Shank and Alavi 2010).
In Iran, the remoteness of some areas where Afghan Urial most likely occur have so far prevented a reliable survey. (1) Caprinae species (urial and wild goat) are the only game mammals in Iran that can be hunted under licences issued by the Department of the Environment. The hunting season for Caprinae lasts four months beginning each year in September, but each licence is valid only for five days from its date of issue. Each hunter can obtain up to four licences per hunting season, and may shoot three males and one female. Unfortunately the exact numbers of Caprinae shot each year by hunters are not available. According to recent data, between 2,200 and 3,200 licences were issued each hunting season, and a rough estimate of the number Caprinae legally shot each year would be between 2,000 to 3,000 animals. However, more than twice this number are estimated to be killed by poachers annually. Hunting is permitted in protected areas but requires a special licence. Because Caprinae populations are not harvestable in most areas, licences are almost never issued for protected areas. (7)
Conservation Status / Trophy hunting
Turmenistan: Approximately half the total population lives in protected areas in Turkmenistan. Kopet Dagh Nature Reserve was established primarily for preservation of this subspecies, and they are also found in Siunt-Khasardag and Badkhyz Nature Reserves. (7)
The Torghar Conservation Project (TCP) is critically important for the conservation of Afghan Urial in Pakistan. The goal of this sustainable hunting project is to bring benefits to the local people to prevent them from poaching. Initially, TCP established a game guard program at Torghar in 1986 with the involvement of the local communities. Over the years the Torghar project has emerged as an exemplarily successful model of biodiversity conservation through sustainable use. A complete ban on unauthorized hunting has been enforced. Controlled hunting of trophy animals was seen as a critical component of the plan for two basic reasons: first, to generate the revenue necessary to support the game guard program; second, to convice the game guards and other local people that their economic well-being was directly tied to the abundance of urial (and markhor), motivating them to give full protection to both species. (1)
Systematic trophy hunts by foreign hunters (mainly from Europe) have taken place every year from 1986 onwards. The proceeds were used to hire more game guards and provide developmental assistance to the local community and tribesmen as a reward for their conservation efforts. Older animals were carefuly selcted for hunting so that the herds‘ breeding performance was not affected. The Society for Torghar Environmental Protection (STEP), an officially registered nongovernmental organization under Pakistani law, receives an annual hunting quota of five Afghan Urial.
Surveys between 1994 and 2005 at Torghar show that the estimated urial populations have increased from 1.173 to 3.146 (Shafique 2006). The developmental schemes which were funded with the proceeds of trophy hunting benefited the entire community. The people of Torghar recognized that conservation, when practiced correctly, brings pride and economic benefits to the entire community and results in bright ecological prospects. (1)
Afghan Urial (O. v. cycloceros) can be officially hunted in Iran and Pakistan.
„Afghan Urial“ (origin unknown) are introduced to the US, where they can be legally hunted.
not a factor
(1) Damm, Gerhard R. and Franco, Nicolás, 2014: The CIC Caprinae Atlas of the World – CIC International Coucil for Game and Wildlife Conservation, Budakeszi, Hungary in cooperation with Rowland Ward Publications RSA (Pty) Ltd., Johannesburg, South Africa.
(2) Matschei, Christian, 2012: Böcke, Takine and Moschusochsen. Filander Verlag.
(3) Wilson, D.E. and Mittermeier, R.A. [eds], 2011: Handbook of the Mammals of the World. Vol. 2. Hoofed Mammals. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
(4) Groves, Colin and Grubb, Peter, 2011: Ungulate Taxonomy. The John Hopkins University Press.
(5) Castelló, José R., 2016: Bovids of the World – Antelopes, Gazelles, Cattle, Goats, Sheep, and Relatives. Princton University Press.
(6) Valdez, Raul, 1982: The Wild Sheep of the World. Wild Sheep and Goat International, Mesilla, New Mexico.
(7) Valdez, R. 2008. Ovis orientalis. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2008: e.T15739A5076068. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2008.RLTS.T15739A5076068.en. Downloaded on 12 March 2018.