Marco Polo’s Sheep (Ovis ammon polii) are a variety of Argali. They are also known as Great Tibetan Sheep, Pamir Argali, and Great Pamir Sheep. They are mainly known for their characteristicly large swirling horns.
Some scholars have doubted the accuracy of Marco Polo’s accounts of his journey to Cathay (China) – where he spent some 17 years in the service of the Mongul emperor Khublai Khan. However, the details he quotes suggest that he not only visited the places he describes – but that he did indeed have a position of influence in the court of the emperor. Amongst the curiosities he describes, which were questioned at the time as flights of fancy, were the wild animals he saw, particularly the large wild sheep, having horns, “three, four and even six palms in length”. This, the largest of all wild sheep, remained an enigma in Europe for 600 years and is now named after him –“Marco Polo sheep”.
Argali live in herds which vary in size from three to thirty specimens, mostly segregated by sex. Male and female herds gather in larger groups just before the rut, which usually takes place in November and December each year. In the late winter the herds separate and go their own ways, wioth males preferring the more remote pastures at higher altitudes.
Adult males weigh on average 126 kg and females 76 kg, with an average height of 113 cm and 100 cm respectively. They have coarse type wool.
They have long, white coloured legs, and the bodies are usually are a brown colour, often with a red spot. The characteristic horns can be used as an indication of the age of an individual male. A one year old will have short horns, (similar to the female’s). A two or three year old will have horns that form a quarter of a circle – at four or five years old, the horns will form a semi-circle and between six to eight years old they will form a three-quarters circle. It is only the oldest specimens which will have fully developed circles – reaching almost half a meter in length.
It is thought that the animal does not have a very good sense of sight, but extremely well developed senses of hearing and smell – it presents a very difficult quarry for the huntsman.
These sheep are found from 5,000 m to 7,500 m a.s.l. in the Pamir range of mountains, as specimens are found as far as afield as Afghanistan and Pakistan. In early spring these sheep migrate back northwards into Chinese, Turkistan or Afghan territory and lambs are born outside Pakistan.
In 1991, it was estimated that there were less than 200 specimens left in the wild and they are considered to be “endangered” – i.e. in risk of extinction. The authorities still allow hunting, however, although a large price is put on the limited number of licenses (about 70) granted each year.
In 2004 a special programme for the preservation of the species was announced. Research will be carried out into the populations, habitats, migration routes and other information about the animals aimed at developing a system of management, monitoring and protecting natural resources. Although it would concentrate on Marco Polo sheep, it will also affect proposals which will affect a range of other species as well.