The Khuntami Cliffs are a cathedral of rock. They rise slowly from inland to crest like an enormous wave frozen just before crashing into the Sea of Japan. It’s been a favorite spot of mine in the Sikhote-Alin Reserve for years now; I’ve seen everything from nesting Eurasian eagle owls to Pacific swifts here, watched Minke whales in the sea, and seen tracks of wild boar, Asiatic black bears, and Amur tiger in the sand along Khuntami Bay below.
It was these latter beasts—the bears and the tigers—that were on my mind a few autumns ago, when I neared the top of the cliffs and something big and unseen exploded in movement from the nearby vegetation.
The mystery creature had only been a few meters away in a stunted, chest-high oak grove before it flushed and, given the wind that day, apparently had not heard or smelled me until I almost kicked it. Instead of a predator, however, I saw prey. A long-tailed goral burst from the bushes to clamber onto a vantage point to assess me as friend or foe, its hooves clicking like high heels on the rock.
I was not expecting a long-tailed goral. They are highly secretive animals: stocky, goat-like creatures of northeast Asia. They are about the size of German shepherds with elegant, backward-curved horns, shaggy grey fur, a prominent black mane that traces their spines and, as the name suggests, long tails.
Goral are expert mountaineers capable of precise vertical movements with speed and efficiency. The first time I saw one, two decades ago, it moved almost straight up a seemingly-sheer cliff with such ease that I was dumbstruck at the impossibility of what I’d just witnessed. It would take a rock climber hours to do what the goral had achieved in mere moments.
Goral are considered Endangered in Russia, but given their furtive nature it’s hard to say for sure how many there are. Estimates tend to range from 600-1,000 individuals, with most distributed along the coast of the province Primorye. Goral are also found in northeast China and along the Korean peninsula. Globally, the IUCN lists them as “Vulnerable” with a declining population.
In Russia, they’re endangered from habitat fragmentation and hunting. The naturalist Vladimir Arsenyev described a goral hunt in Russia a hundred years ago, writing how the men worked in two teams. One group would walk through the forest toward the coast, causing the goral to flee onto the inaccessible cliffs. There, the animals became easy pickings for the second group of hunters who waited with rifles on boats in the sea below.
Until recently, goral in Russia used to reach as far north as the coastal village of Amgu, near where I work with Blakiston’s fish owls. But the economic depression of the 1990s drove many villagers to poaching: goral meat was better than no food at all. Now, the 180-odd gorals a hundred kilometers south of Amgu—in the Sikhote-Alin Reserve—are thought to be the northern-most
Many people, even seasoned field biologists, are surprised when they encounter a goral, especially if the sea is not in sight. The fallacy that goral only occur on coastal cliffs adds to the confusion when one is encountered inland.
“I just saw some kind of demon,” an old ornithologist once stammered after coming face-to-face with a goral high on an inland mountain plateau. He’d never seen one before and goral was not a species on his mental checklist. He continued, bewildered, describing this unknown animal: “it had horns like Pan, a black line down its back, and a bushy tail.”
Back at the Khuntami Cliffs, my rare, horned demon panicked when it recognized me as human, and with a few hurried scrapes of hoof on stone dropped like a rock down a steep precipice, around a corner, and out of sight onto the sheer cliff face. I tried without luck, from as many angles as I could, to catch another glimpse of it. I have not seen a goral since.
More images (and video) of the above-pictured goral here, at the WCS Russia website.
This post originally appeared as part of the “East of Siberia” blog at Scientific American.