The wildlife poaching problem the world isn't paying attention to

Charismatic animals like elephants and snow leopards take the conservation spotlight, but wild goats and sheep need protection from illegal hunting too. Here's why.

By Rachel Nuwer
Published 16 Nov 2022, 16:16 GMT
Blue sheep, named for the sheen on their coats, are foot-sure in mountainous terrain, such as ...
Blue sheep, named for the sheen on their coats, are foot-sure in mountainous terrain, such as this hillside in northwest China's Qinghai Province.
Photograph by Xi Zhinong, Minden Pictures

People around the world keep more than two billion sheep and goats for their meat, milk, and wool, or as pets. But despite the ubiquity of these domestic animals, few people may know that they have wild counterparts, and even fewer, that nearly all the world’s wild goats and sheep are facing population declines and that many are threatened with extinction. The causes are poorly understood, but a new study reveals that poaching is a major culprit.

Caprinae, the family of hoofed animals that includes wild goats and sheep, encompasses about 40 species. Oftentimes, they’re found in mountainous areas where other types of ungulates can’t survive, making them an important food source for predators such as snow leopards.

According to the study, body parts of wild goats and sheep—including eyes, tongues, heads, legs, and tails—are traded as medicinal products. Bottled ointments made from rendered fat and glands are also sold, while horns are marketed primarily as decorations. In addition, the animals’ meat is sold for food.

Chris Shepherd, co-author of the new study and executive director of Monitor, a nonprofit that works to reduce illegal and unsustainable wildlife trade, and colleagues focused on Myanmar, a geographic nexus for South, Southeast, and East Asia. The country is home to several species of wild goats and sheep, including the serow, goral, and takin, which are prohibited from hunting. Blue sheep (named for the sheen on their coats), in the far northern Himalayan region, aren’t included on the country’s protected species list. Although little is known about the numbers and distribution of Myanmar’s goats and sheep, they’re all declining, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Hunters corroborate this, Shepherd says.

The researchers’ data stretch back more than 20 years, indicating that the trade isn’t new—but it has largely gone unnoticed. “Very few people have even heard of most of the species we’re looking at,” Shepherd says, adding that if left unchecked, poaching of these animals could "wipe them out” in Myanmar.

Trade data for the new study came from a number of sources. From 1998 through 2017, Shepherd and Vincent Nijman, co-author of the study and a wildlife trade researcher at Oxford Brookes University, made 20 visits to four wildlife markets in Myanmar where they documented 1,041 wild sheep or goat parts or products. They estimated that these represented 35 blue sheep, 93 gorals, 810 serows, and 90 takins. (They also found parts from some 13 Tibetan antelopes, another Caprinae species that is not native to Myanmar and is strictly prohibited from international trade.)

Most of what they saw was being sold as medicine—serow tongue for broken bones, for example, and serow oil for aching muscles and joints—or as trophies or talismans. On menus at about a dozen restaurants in Yangon, Mong La, and Golden Rock, they noted dishes advertised as wild sheep or goat.

In addition to carrying out their own surveys, the research team found reports about nine seizures of wild goat or sheep meat or parts by Burmese authorities at various locations from 2000 through 2020. They also sourced records from other conservation groups that had carried out market surveys in Myanmar.

Taken as a whole, the work implicates nearly 1,700 wild sheep and goats in illegal trade—“and that’s just based on our limited research,” Shepherd says. The sleuthing also shows that the problem is especially pronounced in towns bordering China and Thailand. “The central government has very little control of some of these border areas, and that’s where illegal wildlife trade thrives,” Nijman says.

The estimated 1,243 serow—a species vulnerable to extinction—is a particularly alarming number, says Alice Hughes, a conservation biologist at the University of Hong Kong who was not involved in the research. “This shows hunting poses a considerable risk to the species,” she says, and at the same time, there’s “no real effort to prevent trafficking and trade, which is clearly needed.”

Htay Aung, director general of Myanmar’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation, did not respond to a request for comment on the new study’s findings.

Hughes also points out that because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the coup in February 2021, the situation in Myanmar for these animals may have worsened since the researchers wrapped up their study. Hunting pressures “may have increased considerably in the last two years—and no data is available to assess those impacts,” she says.   

Shepherd and Nijman hope their findings raise awareness about the plight of wild goats and sheep and catalyse more conservation action for them. “There’s this whole group of species that’s getting completely wiped out, and there’s no funds to step in and do anything about it,” Shepherd says. “It’s unfortunate, because this is an amazing group of animals, and there’s so much work that needs to be done to protect them.”


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