SHARJAH // When Ali al Shehhi's son got engaged, the bride's family brought a treat to celebrate: Arabian tahr with rice. It was, he said, one of the best dishes he had ever tasted - "very different and delicious". It was traditional, too: Mr al Shehhi's ancestors had hunted the tahr near their rocky homes in the mountains of Ras al Khaimah for generations.
What neither he nor the other members of the two families realised was that the Arabian tahr they were eating is seriously endangered, with fewer than 50 animals remaining in the wild in the UAE. That goat's fate was all too common, according to Jackie Strick, the veterinary nurse and Arabian tahr specialist at the Breeding Centre for Endangered Arabian Wildlife in Sharjah. "They either get mistaken for a regular goat or some actually recognise it as the exotic mountain goat and hunt it down because of the very fact that they are different," she said.
"Because of their dependency on water, they often get ambushed as they drink at known water holes." Efforts are now well under way at the centre to preserve the species. Just four weeks ago, the project had another success, in the shape of Qara, the sixth tahr kid to be born there. Named after a mountain in Oman, where most tahr reside, Qara already climbs easily over the rocks in her enclosure.
She has bumps on her head where her horns will eventually emerge, and a grey-brown coat that is rapidly turning browner as she gets older. It is thought that the coat's initial grey colour is to help the young tahr stay camouflaged in their natural mountainous habitat. Qara is one of the nine tahr that now live at the centre, along with her mother, Kydd, and father, Akhdar. Typically for a male, Akhdar has distinct thick horns that curve back over his head. His long, red-brown coat is shaggier than a female's, and he has a long beard on his chin.
The males' manes grow longer as they age and their faces become darker. Females, meanwhile, are smaller, with slender horns. Their hair is shorter and their manes less visible. They also lack the males' showy leg tassels. The males are heavier, too, at 17kg to the females' typical 10kg. Male or female, their rubbery hooves provide the tahr with traction on the steep slopes and cliffs where they are at home.
Unusually for goats, the tahr is territorial. Males scratch troughs in the soil with their hooves, and mark the furrows with scented secretions from glands on their chests. According to Ms Strick, the tahrs are quite distinct from goats, being "shy and more agile". They usually live either alone or in small groups. The UAE's tahrs are concentrated in the mountains of Ras al Khaimah and Fujairah. There are also around 15 of the creatures at Al Ain's Jebel Hafeet.
More survive in Oman, although no one knows quite how many. The last estimate, which suggested there were a total of 2,000 in the Arabian Peninsula, dates from the late 1970s. At the same time as their numbers have declined in the UAE, they are now poached in Oman, and sold on the black market for as much as Dh120,000 a pair. Often their legs are broken to prevent them from fighting back. Feral goats are also a threat to the tahrs.
"Not only are they under threat from illegal hunting and habitat loss from construction," Ms Strick explained, "they have to compete with feral goats for food. "While the tahr only eat part of the plant, the feral goats destroy the mountain vegetation leaving nothing to grow back." They are, she said, best left alone. "If anyone sees an Arabian tahr in the wild they should not disturb it, but appreciate how fortunate they are to have seen such a rare animal in the wild."
As for Mr al Shehhi, he now rues his engagement feast. Knowing what he now does, he says he would not eat tahr again. "We didn't know they are endangered," he said. "No wonder they are difficult to find now." firstname.lastname@example.org