Weighing up to 145kg, the goat-like Barbary sheep or aoudad, as it is sometimes called, is an unmistakable but rarely seen denizen of the Sahara’s mountains. Russet or brown in colour, the long mane and chaps are distinguishing marks. Horns are present in both sexes, with those of the male large and heavily keeled in mature animals.
This shy animal generally lives in extended family groups of up to six or seven individuals. Under ideal circumstances, females may give birth to twins and even triplets. Although able to exploit high mountain water sources out of reach to other large mammals, they also live in areas where there is no permanent water, obtaining moisture from the plants they eat. With their heavy horns, they have been observed ramming tress to dislodge nutritious Acacia seed pods. Typically, Barbary sheep will shelter from the midday heat and wind behind boulders, in caves or on sheltered plateaus. They love to dust themselves in specially excavated scrapes. If disturbed, they quickly flee for rocky slopes and safety.
As typical rock dwellers, the sheep find the food and water other grazers cannot reach in deep canyons and on plateaus as high as 3000m in the Moroccan High Atlas. In the Red Rea mountains of Egypt, they share the habitat with the local mountain goat, the Nubian Ibex. When undisturbed, the sheep will often leave the safety of the mountain to feed and shade in neighboring wadis.
The Barbary sheep is indigenous to the Sahara and its sub-Saharan fringes. It can be found in suitable mountain habitats throughout the region, from the Atlantic coast to the Red Sea, and from the Mediterranean Atlas Mountains to the escarpments of the northern Sahel.
In large protected areas, such as the Ahaggar and Tassili National Parks in southern Algeria, Barbary sheep populations are healthy and may number several thousand head. But in spite of the resilience and rock-loving habits, Barbary sheep are extremely vulnerable and many small, isolated populations have either been wiped out by hunting or are in a critical state. The spread of automatic weapons throughout the Sahara, coupled with insecurity in many mountainous areas, has resulted in serious declines in many places. When water is available, after rainfall or from springs and mountain pools, they are extremely vulnerable to hunters, especially during the hot season. Traditional hunters will set foot traps in the vicinity of drinking holes and build blinds from which to shoot passing animals. Although globally the Barbary sheep is listed as Vulnerable in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, this does not reflect the situation locally, where the status is often quite dramatic.
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