largest living wild sheep

The argali sheep is the largest living wild sheep, recognised by its impressive long spiralling horns. The rams (males) are usually larger than the ewes (females), with longer horns that are used to compete with each other during the mating season. They are an important prey species for wolves and snow leopards. The number of argali has declined over the last century, and the species is listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List. The Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) has also listed the argali under Appendix II, which includes migratory species with an unfavourable conservation status and requiring international cooperation for their conservation and management. The CMS encourages range states to collaborate through global or regional agreements to protect and manage these species and their habitats. Under CITES, the species is listed under Appendix II, covering species potentially at risk if trade is not controlled.

Flagship species

IUCN Red List (<year of assessment>)

KAZ Red Book


KGZ Red Book (2006)

TJK Red Book (2015)

Approx. population size in the project region

Argali Ovis ammon

Near Threatened (2020)




16,451 (KAZ)

15,507 (KGZ)

26,500 (TJK)

Distribution and habitat

Argali are found in Tibet, the Himalayas, and other Central Asian mountain ranges in Afghanistan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. They occupy mountains, steppe valleys, and rocky outcrops at elevations from 300 to 5000 m above sea level, preferring undulating but rugged surface terrain with a lack of tall vegetation, using high mountain areas in summer and low ranges in winter. Overall, the range of the argali is highly fragmented with limited connected populations, some of which cross international borders. Argali sheep are found in the central Kazakh Low Hills (Melkosopochnik) and in the Tarbagatay and Saur in the northeastern part of Kazakhstan at the border with China. They are also present in southeastern and eastern Kyrgyzstan, and throughout most of the eastern third of Tajikistan, from the border with China in the south to the border with Kyrgyzstan in the west.


The argali is a main prey for carnivores such as snow leopards and wolves, hence their conservation is important for sustaining these populations. Ungulates help maintain ecosystem processes within the habitat. Cyclic grazing within their range has positive effects on grassland forage and ecosystem processes. This includes increasing grassland production through regenerative growth after grazing as well as raising nitrogen mineralisation and availability to plants, seed dispersal, and structuring vegetation cover.


The main threats to argali are from poaching for meat and the increasing influence of domestic livestock. The long horns of up to 191 cm and the challenge in approaching them, make the argali highly desired trophies among big-game hunters. In some areas, this interest has motivated the protection of argali.

Domestic livestock are serious competitors to argali and in some places force them to migrate to higher elevations to avoid competition and disturbance by herders and dogs. Overly intensive grazing by domestic sheep and other livestock is causing further habitat degradation and is regarded as an important reason for the decrease in argali numbers. Domestic livestock have also introduced deadly infectious diseases and parasites to the argali. Herders have noted that warming temperatures are causing more disease among livestock herds, thus increasing the risk for transfer to wildlife populations.

The Asian mountain ranges are particularly susceptible to climate-driven changes presenting another threat to argali. The recession of glaciers and decrease in water supply and storage in form of ice and snow with warmer temperatures could have harmful impacts on the wildlife habitats in this area. Glacial meltwater and snowpack provide freshwater and moisture to the soil which is necessary for vegetation throughout the year. Riparian habitats are important forage areas for the argali and a decrease in vegetation in these areas could reduce the amount of suitable habitats for them.

Salas, EAL, Valdez, R, Michel, S, Boykin, KG. Habitat assessment of Marco Polo sheep (Ovis ammon polii) in Eastern Tajikistan: Modeling the effects of climate change. Ecol Evol. 2018; 8: 5124– 5138.

Fedosenko, AK, Blank, DA. Mammalian Species, Ovis ammon. American Society of Mammalogists. (2005). No. 773, pp. 1-15

Population status and migration trends of Marco Polo argali (Ovis ammon polii) in Pakistan (

Reading, R., Michel, S. & Amgalanbaatar, S. 2020. Ovis ammon. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2020: e.T15733A22146397. Accessed on 17 March 2023.

Ecological interactions shape the distribution of a cultural ecosystem service: Argali sheep (Ovis ammon) in the Gobi-Steppe of Mongolia – ScienceDirect

Habitat assessment of Marco Polo sheep (Ovis ammon polii) in Eastern Tajikistan: Modeling the effects of climate change – Salas – 2018 – Ecology and Evolution – Wiley Online Library

International Single Species Action Plan for the Conservation of the Argali

Ovis ammon | CMS

Salovarov, Viktor O., Daniyar N. Yesmukhanbetov and Zhaskaiyr M. Karagoishin. “DYNAMICS OF ARGALI POPULATION (OVIS AMMON LINNAEUS, 1758) IN KAZAKHSTAN.” Siberian Journal of Life Sciences and Agriculture (2023): n. pag.