In Search of the Mouflon
Armed with maps, cameras, hats, and sturdy boots, we climb into our all-terrain vehicle and set off early one fine spring morning. Our destination is the Paphos Forest, high in the Troodos mountain range on the island of Cyprus, where we hope to find the elusive mouflon. What is this animal?
MOUFLONS are a species of wild sheep, relatives of which can be found throughout the Mediterranean region. The particular mouflon that has fired our curiosity is indigenous to Cyprus and is said to combine the beauty of a deer with the agility of a goat. Zoologists call it Ovis gmelini ophion, while Cypriots call it agrinó. It can be found only in remote mountain areas.
We turn off the highway, driving into the foothills and then through a beautiful valley. Villages cling to the hillsides, and orchards line the vale. Soon, however, the going gets rough, and in places our vehicle comes precariously close to the edge of steep ridges. Finally, we reach our destination—the forest station. We are now deep in the Paphos Forest with its 150,000 acres [60,000 ha] of pines and cedars. We order coffee and chat with Andreas, a green-uniformed forester who speaks passionately about mouflons.
The mouflon, he says, is the largest wild mammal in Cyprus. In the past great numbers roamed the island. Many Greco-Roman mosaics depict this wild sheep, and medieval writings describe how the gentry enjoyed hunting it in the Paphos Forest.
While leading us to an enclosure, Andreas tells us more about the mouflon’s history. We learn, for example, that the animal experienced a drastic decline in numbers with the advent of the hunting rifle. Not until 1938 were the hunting laws of Cyprus revised to protect this creature. Foresters and police cooperated to curb poaching. A year later the forest was declared off-limits to hunters. These changes, along with additional measures taken since the 1960’s, have resulted in a mouflon population boom.
Our First Encounter
We follow Andreas to a fenced enclosure and peer through the bushes and trees. Signaling us to be quiet, Andreas leads us a short distance up a slope. There we see three adult females and two newborns grazing in a sunny glade. The adults are about three feet [90 cm] tall, and their coats are light brown, becoming pale on the belly.
The wild plants they eat are plentiful this time of year, and the adults are too busy browsing to pay much attention to us. The newborns, however, stop gamboling about and take a few tentative steps toward us. We are delighted! But the mere click of one of our cameras startles them, and in the blink of an eye, the whole group disappears into the woods.
Elated at the sighting, we make plans to explore the forest on foot in hopes of seeing mouflons in the wild. Andreas suggests that we try at dawn, when the animals sometimes venture to the fringe of the forest in search of food. Since we plan to camp in the valley overnight, the mountain overlooking the valley might be a good place to search. Mouflons, we learn, frequent the higher slopes during the warmer months, but in winter, when the peaks are covered with snow, they search for edible plants at a lower elevation, even venturing out into the open.
Mating takes place in autumn. During winter, mouflons move around in flocks of between 10 and 20 animals. When lambing begins in April or May, the flocks split into smaller groups, such as the one we saw in the enclosure. Adult males usually forage alone.
A Ram in the Wild!
Early the next morning, we drive uphill again, park in a glade, and hike into the forest before the sun rises too high. The forest is still quiet, and a mist drifts through the trees. While we stop to savor the silence, we see him—a magnificent, muscular male, his thick winter coat almost shed. Dark hair covers his lower throat. With a proud tilt of his head, he gazes at us through dark lashes and tests the air for our scent. Each of his thick, curved horns must be at least 18 inches [40 cm] long! He is heavier than the females we saw yesterday and must weigh about 80 pounds [35 kg].
We freeze, barely daring to breathe. Nevertheless, this wary creature seems to have caught our scent, for he tosses his head up and down and flees. What we have seen and learned in two days has truly impressed us. We have also grown in appreciation for the Creator, who said: “To me belongs every wild animal of the forest, the beasts upon a thousand mountains.”—Psalm 50:10.
[Pictures on page 24, 25]
A Cyprus mouflon (background) and a European mouflon
[Picture Credit Lines on page 25]
Top right: Oxford Scientific/photolibrary/Niall Benvie; European Mouflon: Oxford Scientific/photolibrary