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Consider: the Takin

Updated: Apr 19

Large animals tend to hog the spotlight. Being big comes with a lot of challenges, not least of which is that being big makes humans more likely to want to know what your meat tastes like on a burger. One benefit of being large, though, is that people tend to notice when you start to disappear. Keeping accurate population records of elephants, rhinoceroses, and other large herbivores can be done without too much difficulty, and local people will tend to be able to identify when there are fewer of a large animal as opposed to when there are fewer of a small one. Insect species and other small arthropods tend to have very fragmentary population records, and as such protecting them gives conservation biologists fits—how do you protect a species when you can’t even study where it lives or how many of them are left?

In the mountains of China and south-central Asia, however, there lives a creature that just might hold the title of the world’s most mysterious large animal. Though the size of a domestic donkey, it is almost entirely unknown outside of the countries it lives in, making it one of the very few large mammalian herbivores on Earth to not become a household name. With this article, let’s try to change that. Consider: the Takin. Budorcas taxicolor.

Takins are large herbivores native to mountain forests in Asia. They live across several countries, with populations in China, Bhutan (where they are the National Animal), Nepal, India, and Burma. While they look a good bit like a water buffalo or cow, takins actually belong to the Caprins, the same taxonomic family as goats and sheep. They’re pretty big animals, with a maximum height at the shoulder of 1.4 meters (4.5 feet) and a weight topping out at about 350 kg (770 lbs), about the height and weight of a donkey. Males grow a little larger than females, though beyond that both sexes have the same traits, including their long, wildebeest-like horns. Said horns usually grow up to 30 cm (~1 foot) long, but the horns on some males can reach lengths of 60 cm (~2 feet). These horns are razor-sharp and can do serious damage, enough to deter most predators from snackin on a takin.

Takins have tremendous noses much like a moose’s, and this nose serves an important purpose besides making them look like they have a pair of tiny binoculars stuck to their faces. These massive nostrils help to warm and condition the cold mountain air that takins breathe in constantly. Were it not for those big nostrils, the frigid mountain air in winter would cool takins down from the inside, causing them to freeze to death. Incidentally, human noses serve a very similar function, and some evolutionary biologists believe that human noses evolved to be so large to serve this purpose. So yeah, we are also big-nosed freaks.

Of course, the most obvious feature of takins is their impressive coat. Takin coats come in a variety of colors, but the golden coats seen in populations within the Qinling Mountains of China really stand out. I have never seen another wild animal with a coat quite like that, shimmering gold with just a hint of orange that makes the animal glow like a sunset. Their coats are so profoundly beautiful, in fact, that some historians believe the Golden Fleece from the legend of Jason and the Argonauts was actually based on the coat of a golden takin.

That coat isn’t just for show, however—it has a variety of functions that help takins to survive in their frigid mountain habitat (though I’m pretty sure the gold color is just a flex). Like many cold-weather animals, takins have a double coat which helps them to stay warm and dry. The outer, longer coat repels dirt and moisture like a puffy winter jacket, while the short inner coat holds in body heat, like a well-knit sweater. Like a suburban dad in a Vineyard Vines quarter-zip and puffer vest, takins are able to withstand cold temperatures and driving snow that blankets their habitat in winter. In addition, takin skin produces a black, sticky oil which adheres to their coat and helps to waterproof it. This oil often gets rubbed off when takins scratch themselves on surfaces, leaving a black residue behind. According to biologist Valerius Geist, this oil has a “burning taste”. Boy, do I love biologists.

As one could guess from the horns and hooves, takins are herbivores. They aren’t picky either—when you live on the top of a mountain where vegetation is scarce, you learn to not scoff at what ends up on the dinner plate. Any greenery around suits a takin: grass, leaves, bamboo shoots, even things that are very hard to digest such as pine bark and rhododendron leaves. Takins manage to eat all of this tough plant matter through foregut fermentation, the same as cows, sheep, and other ruminants. Essentially, takins have multi-chambered stomachs filled with bacteria that can break down tough plant matter. When takins eat, they chew their food once, let it sit for a while in the foregut so the bacteria can do their work, then regurgitate and go in for a second chew. In case my Jewish readers out there are curious, takins have both cloven hooves and chew the cud, so they are technically kosher, though I’m not sure how God feels about eating an endangered species.

Many of the animals that I’ve written about are either completely solitary or live in very small groups. Such is not the case with takins. During the spring and summer, when food is plentiful, takins form large herds of up to 300 individuals, all of whom are females or young, sexually-immature males. Adult males only join the herd for the mating season, after which time they make like the proverbial dad going out for a carton of milk. Takin herds migrate to different areas during the year depending on where food is most available. During spring and summer, they travel high into the mountains, while in winter they move down into low-lying, slightly warmer valleys. A takin herd will take the same trail up and down the mountain year after year, creating a sort of highway that allows other animals to traverse the environment more efficiently. When times are tough, like in particularly cold winters, herds split into smaller groups to increase their chances of finding enough food.

As herding animals, takins require robust communication between individuals. Takins communicate primarily through sound, and can make a variety of calls. Mothers will purr to get the attention of their children, and males will roar at each other during dominance displays. When predators are noticed, takins warn each other with a grumbling cough, and they can use their tremendous noses to whistle (I have not been able to find out what they use the nose whistle for—probably just to annoy other takins). Like many animals, takins also communicate with pheromones. The scents produced by an individual takin can communicate their identity and sexual readiness to others within the herd. Much like our beloved dogs, takin pheromones can be found in their urine, but unlike dogs, takins are not content with lifting their leg on a fire hydrant when it comes to pheromone spreading—they really get into it. Male takins spray their own chests, forelegs, and faces with urine (impressive aim), while females soak their tails in the stuff. For a takin, coating yourself with your own urine is your equivalent of putting “dogs and the office” on your Tinder profile.

Once late summer comes and the takins douse themselves in Chanel Eau de Piss, mating season begins. Adult males meet with the herd and call to attract females, honking, snorting, and bellowing like gym rats on leg day. Like many horned animals, males will also headbutt one another in an attempt to establish dominance and impress females. Once the deed is done, mothers carry their babies until the end of winter, then give birth in the early spring. Baby takins can walk and climb almost as well as their mothers shortly after birth. After all, in the spring the herd ascends to the mountaintops to graze—babies who can’t follow would get left behind.

Despite their best efforts to live in as remote of areas as possible, takins face a variety of threats due to humans. They are currently classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN, with populations declining. Two of the threats takins face are fairly common in the world of species conservation—habitat destruction and poaching. As roads are built and forest is cleared to make way for farmland, the mountain valleys that takins rely on to brave the winter have dwindled in size. Like many other Chinese animals, such as the Giant Panda and Red Panda, the bamboo industry has wreaked havoc on takin populations in China, though efforts to protect the panda have also benefited takins. In many areas, people hunt takins for meat and horns. Takin horns are traded on the black market in Burma and other nearby countries, while others hunt takins for meat. While many countries have made takin hunting illegal, the takin’s preferred mountainous habitat is basically impossible to effectively patrol, so in many places the laws are either not known about or completely ignored. This challenge unfortunately is not unique—conservationists all over the world have learned many times that laws protecting species do not matter if nobody enforces them.

Climate change, too, threatens takins. The lush mountain forests that takins rely on to survive are watered by seasonal melting of mountain ice caps and glaciers. With the planet warming, glaciers worldwide are shrinking and less snow is falling on those mountains. If current climate trends continue, the frozen reservoirs that takins’ mountain habitat rely on may cease to exist, drying up the entire ecosystem and leading to the extinction of not only takins, but many other species that they share a habitat with.

Human conservation activities on behalf of takins have made some progress, and there is hope that the species’ population decline will stabilize. In China, two wildlife reserves have been founded to protect the Sichuan takin subspecies, and captive breeding programs have begun at several zoos in the United States, most famously the San Diego Zoo. Other conservation groups have fitted wild takins with radio transmitters to better identify the extent of their habitat and what areas require protection. Takins live across a vast swath of difficult-to-traverse mountains, so radio tracking can help to keep tabs on herd migrations and potentially catch poachers in the act. To offset the loss of resources to indigenous communities due to the banning of poaching, conservationists have provided locals with access to more valuable agricultural resources like honey and persimmons. After all, when you don’t have enough money to feed your family, the conservation of a giant orange goat that pisses all over itself is about the least of your concerns.

Just this past May, the San Diego zoo saw the birth of the first Sichuan takin calf in their captive breeding program, the second takin birth in the Western Hemisphere and the first male. They named him “Jin Tong”, meaning “Golden Child” in Mandarin Chinese. In addition to being an adorable little teddy bear of an animal, Jin Tong represents hope for a unique and majestic species the likes of which exists nowhere else on Earth. Takins exemplify the exact kind of animal that I want to talk about on Consider Nature. They push the boundaries of what we think an animal can look like and inspire wonder for the mechanisms of evolution that created them. At the same time, takins have adapted to their climates in such a way that if our decisions lead to their extinction, no other animal on Earth could replace them. They fit into their ecosystems like a piece in a puzzle, and no other piece will fit just right.

I wish the best of luck to little Jin Tong—may he and his descendants one day roam the vast mountains of Asia in a kinder, safer world.

Thanks for reading! If you want to learn more about species conservation and receive updates when a new article is published, consider joining our Discord. Alternatively, you can join our email list at the bottom of the homepage.

Also, if you are interested in donating to help protect takins, consider checking out the Nature Conservancy's project here.

Smug takin is smug. Image Credit: Shutterstock

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