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ARGALI: Mongolian For Sheep: In terms of body and horn size, there is no competition.

American naturalist James L. Clark (1883-1969), in his book The Great Arc of the Wild Sheep, described the global habitat of wild sheep as a giant arc or rainbow. One base of genus Ovis, the true wild sheep, is anchored in northwestern Mexico, and the other is on the Mediterranean. (There are no native wild sheep in Africa, South America, or the entire South Pacific region.) There are two species in North America, bighorns and "thin-horned" Dall and Stone sheep, and just one in Europe, the mouflon. Between Alaska's Dall sheep and Europe's mouflon, the giant land mass of Asia holds the real treasure trove of wild sheep. Although hunters and biologists aren't always in perfect agreement on races, subspecies, and natural hybrids, it's generally accepted that there are three distinct species of true wild sheep in Asia.

North American wild sheep almost certainly crossed from Asia on a long-gone Bering Strait land bridge, closed for the last time as recently as 7,000 years ago. Our sheep developed separately after the land bridge vanished, but the several snow sheep, Ovis nivicola, have horns similar to Dall sheep but coats more similar to our bighorns. Far to the southwest, across thousands of miles of Asia, in northwestern Iran, the mouflons transition to the urial sheep, Ovis orientalis, with numerous races.

Between the urials and snow sheep, occupying many of those thousands of miles of Asia, are the argalis, the largest of all wild sheep, genus and species Ovis ammon, with science identifying nine subspecies. We crazy hunters don't always precisely follow scientific classification, but not all the argalis are huntable or occur in huntable numbers. Some races are localized, others occupy large areas, and populations vary from scarce to plentiful.

The primary argali range is generally from western China and Mongolia westward deep into Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Opportunities to hunt argalis of several races currently exist in all these countries except China, which has been closed to foreign hunters since 2001. For completeness, centered in the Himalayas and generally south of the argalis, one finds the blue sheep or bharal. Smallish and very sheep-like, the blue sheep is the highest-dwelling large mammal in the world and is considered different enough to have its own genus and species: Pseudois nayaur.

There should be no mistaken identity with the argalis: horns curl up, back, and around, making a full circle and often more. The word "argali" comes from the Mongolian for sheep. The argalis are tall, long-legged, long-bodied sheep. Science considers them "running sheep," while our North American sheep with shorter legs and blockier bodies are "climbing sheep." Our Rocky Mountain bighorn is thick-chested and heavy. With weights sometimes exceeding 300 pounds, a large bighorn is heavier than rams of smaller races of argali and can best them in horn mass. But in both body and horn, when you get to the larger argalis, there's no comparison.

All argalis are of genus and species Ovis ammon. Most famous, and gifted with the longest horns, is the Marco Polo argali, O.a. polii, after explorer Marco Polo, who observed their marvelous horns on his epic 13th-century journey across Asia. The horns of a Marco Polo argali can reach an astonishing six feet around the curl.

Hunters often exaggerate the size of animals, but we aren't alone in that. A common reference suggests that the Marco Polo is the largest argali, with possible body weight exceeding 700 pounds. Neither is true. The Marco Polo sheep is slab-sided; relatively thin through the body; with a long, thick coat. In its cold and very high habitat, much of what appears to be sheep is actually hair. I've not actually weighed wild sheep--and suppose I'm prone to the same levels of exaggeration--but I'd be surprised if any of the Marco Polo argalis I've shot and seen shot reached 350 pounds.

The Marco Polo sheep is a tall, imposing animal with amazing horn length. However, base circumference rarely exceeds 16 inches, so the Marco Polo is not "heavy-horned" like a bighorn. No sheep can match its potential horn length, but there are races of argali that are bigger in the body and a couple that are significantly larger in overall horn mass. One of these is the type specimen, O. a. ammon, the Altai argali of the Altai Mountains of western Mongolia and adjacent northwestern China. Without question, the Altai argali is the largest wild sheep in the world--in both body size and horn mass.

Honest, I do not give credence to this or any wild sheep reaching 700 pounds. However, the Altai argali is not just a tall, leggy sheep. It is deep through the chest, with broad shoulders and wide hams. By even the most conservative estimate, I'm certain a mature ram exceeds 400 pounds and could be 25 percent heavier. Even at their best, horns are not as long as O. a.polii--but bases can exceed 22 inches with mass carried throughout.

A lifetime of experience has convinced me wild goats are tough, but sheep are not. But the Altai argali is enough bigger than anything else to be a game-changer. You need to adjust all your thinking from "deer size" to "spike elk." I'm not smart enough to theorize how, over eons, our wildlife developed and diversified. However, the Altai Mountains are not as high, as steep, or harsh as ranges to the southwest that hold other races of argali, including Marco Polo and Tien Shan (O. a. karelini) argalis. Perhaps the somewhat milder conditions allowed the Altai argali's extreme body and horn development.

However, Mongolia has brutal winters, and both wolves and snow leopards are endemic. Populations fluctuate. Today permits are limited and tightly controlled. This makes the Altai argali a costly sheep to pursue, but with improved management, the population is better sustained through the tough years. In September 2018--in good Altai argali country--it wasn't uncommon to see 50 rams per day. Most were young to middle-aged, but a few were mature, older rams--enough to convince me I was looking at the biggest wild sheep in the world!

Caption: The Ovis ammon ammon or Altai argali can grow very long horns exceeding five feet around the curl, but the mass is equally impressive; circumference at the base can be 22 inches. This ram, though worn or "broomed" at the tips, carries tremendous mass throughout.

Caption: The author and Kaan Karakaya with Boddington's first Altai argali. The largest-bodied wild sheep with the greatest horn mass are found in northwestern Mongolia and adjacent China.
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Title Annotation:PASSPORT
Author:Boddington, Craig
Publication:Petersen's Hunting
Geographic Code:90ASI
Date:Sep 1, 2019
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