Mountain Sheep Experts Draw Hunters' Fire WHEN AGENTS of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seized the hides and horns of four Chinese sheep as contraband in 1988, they set off a scientific row that continues to this day. It now spans three continents and has involved a prominent politician, the Smithsonian Institution, and top wildlife officials in an arcane dispute over taxonomy. The basic question: were the sheep, which were shot by wealthy U.S. hunters, a rare breed that is protected by an international treaty?
The killing of four sheep in a remote region of China may seem a minor incident, but it touched off legal battles in California, Texas, and Washington, D.C. The incident has attracted attention in Texas because one of the hunters was Clayton Williams, the Republican candidate for governor. And at the scientific level, the ensuing dispute has revealed a tangled relationship between hunting and research: A scientist with a joint appointment at the Smithsonian Institution and the Fish and Wildlife Service was along on the hunt, and both organizations have sided with the hunters in this case.
The animals killed in China were Tibetan argali, distant cousins of the bighorn sheep that live in the American Rockies. Once plentiful in the Tibetan high plateau, they have been slaughtered for meat and hides and their numbers have dwindled in recent decades.
Rarely seen by Westerners, the argali became the subject of a taxonomic dispute because historic accounts name several subspecies, but only one, Ovis ammon hodgsoni, has been listed as endangered in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). India asked that hodgsoni be protected in 1973, and other parties to CITES, including China and the United States, raised no objection. Some experts say that at least two names have been used in the past to describe the protected subspecies, and that regardless of nomenclature, all the argali in Central Asia are endangered.
When challenged, the hunters first said they had shot a type of argali called Ovis ammon darwini, not named on the endangered list. Later, they said the animals were Ovis ammon dalai lamae, also absent from the list. Their claims were supported by the Smithsonian and the Scientific Authority of the Fish and Wildlife Service in letters to the head of the nomenclature committee of CITES, but were firmly rejected by a group of academics.
Four independent wildlife experts say that dalai lamae is just a synonym for hodgsoni, claiming there is a mix-up in the literature, and that the animals killed on his hunt assuredly were not darwini. The names were assigned by Europeans in the 19th century, hodgsoni being identified by explorers in the south and dalai lamae by those in the north. Valerius Geist, professor of ecology at the University of Calgary in Canada, says the hunters are relying on this confusion to pull off a "taxonomic sleight of hand."
These claims and challenges have loosed a flood of legal and scientific prose over the past 2...
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