Texas Can’t Quit the Aoudad

Some Texans are calling for the extermination of this exotic African transplant. But others depend on it.

An aoudad stands alone on a cliff.
William Vandivert / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images

Allen Smith decided long ago what to do about the aoudads that wander onto his family’s land.

“The first four I saw, I shot,” he tells me.

From 5,000 feet up, in Smith’s Cessna Skymaster, the choices other Texans have made for their land roll out below—the network of oil and gas wells, the reflective surfaces of solar farms, the sleepaway camps, rodeo arenas, and dried-up, gutter-like creek beds. Smith’s family acreage, once dedicated to cattle, is now a refuge for native wildlife. From this perch in the sky, only movement would distinguish the tawny body of an aoudad from its desert habitat. Fringed in long hair from throat to chest, aoudads travel in a massive herd called an anger and scale steep cliffsides with surprising agility and speed. Their curved horns can easily exceed two feet in length.

Once, a different species—the native desert bighorn sheep—roamed the Southwest in abundance. But by the end of the 19th century, overhunting, habitat loss, and disease pared North American populations down to thousands of individuals. When the bighorns began disappearing from West Texas in the early 20th century, the North African aoudad took their place. Imported by zoos, and later set loose by private owners and public officials, aoudads flourished where bighorns had struggled to survive.

These two desert species have been subject to the same indignities of living alongside humans: They both have been hunted to the brink of extinction, and both have been transplanted to this part of West Texas, as aoudads, and later new populations of desert bighorns, were brought in to replace diminished bighorn herds. Many Texans, however, believe that only one, the desert bighorn, truly belongs here.

Unfortunately for them, bighorns are smaller and weaker than the sheeplike aoudads, which reproduce easily and require little water. A 2018 census found nearly 5,000 aoudads populating two mountain ranges in West Texas; decades of costly reintroduction efforts have nurtured a smaller population of desert bighorns, now tallying about 1,500 across 11 mountain ranges.

In December, Black Gap, a state-owned wildlife-management area, received a transplant of bighorns from nearby Elephant Mountain, which serves as the state’s well of bighorn brood stock. Since Smith’s property abuts Black Gap, the transplanted sheep will likely wander over. “The deal is, if you want the bighorn sheep—you have to protect them,” Smith says.

Hence Smith’s willingness to shoot any wayward aoudad he encounters on his land. “Unfortunately, they're not supposed to be here,” says Froylan Hernandez, who leads desert bighorn programs for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. On state lands, or with a private landowner’s permission, he too will, at times, shoot aoudads on sight. “Our responsibility would be to exterminate them,” he says.

Halfway around the world, such eradication is unthinkable. Fossil remains in Libya suggest that the aoudad was one of the planet’s first ruminants—the group that includes cattle, giraffes, and moose—and has long served as an important source of meat, hide, and hair. While North America hosts some 75,000 aoudads, fewer than 10,000 individuals free-range in the species’s native North Africa. There, aoudadswhich are closely related to goats and sheep but actually belong to their own unique biological genusare considered at high risk of extinction in the wild.

The aoudad is not the only example of this paradox in the Lone Star State. It is part of a suite of nonnative hoofed animals introduced from abroad, dubbed “Texotics,” and one of a small subset of Texotics that have proliferated stateside while disappearing from their home range. As invaders that face extinction elsewhere, aoudads and species like them pose a problem: Are they ecological troublemakers, refugees, or—somehow, impossibly—both at the same time?

The earliest record of an aoudad’s U.S. entry is the 1900 arrival of a specimen from Liverpool, England, en route to Jersey City. The animal soon became so plentiful in American zoos that some managers routinely slaughtered a third of their herds to feed carnivorous exhibits. In 1957 and 1958, Texas wildlife officials released about 40 aoudads as legal game into the state’s Palo Duro Canyon, to develop more income opportunities for private ranchers. “They saved ranchers,” says Charly Seale, the executive director of the Exotic Wildlife Association.

Over decades, Texas ranchers have developed an entire industry around hunting exotic animals and selling exotic meats. Producers in some parts of Texas generate more revenue raising exotics and white-tailed deer for hunting than they could raising cattle for beef, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A 2007 Texas A&M University research report valued the country’s exotic-wildlife industry at $1 billion; Seale says he believes that figure has doubled since then.

“Traditional ranching struggled to bring in an income,” says Eric White, general manager at the Y.O. Ranch in Kerrville, one of the state’s oldest exotics ranches. “This is another strategy for a family to hang on to a ranch.” A single aoudad trophy hunt—a tricky pursuit, considering that the secretive animal can spot approaching hunters from hundreds of yards away and quickly scramble up cliffs—fetches $4,250 for the Y.O. Ranch (only slightly less than its $5,750 zebra hunt and a steal compared to its $18,000 trophy hunt for a kudu, a type of African antelope).

“It’s a picture-perfect sportsman hunt. We love aoudad here,” says Jim Breck Bean, whose High West Outfitters sells multi-thousand-dollar guided hunts across his million-plus acres. “It’s huge to our economy. You’d never want to see them eradicated.” Hernandez, of the parks and wildlife program, may have a mandate to shoot aoudads on state lands, but in a state where some 95 percent of the land is privately owned, that power has limits. When a landowner tells Hernandez that aoudad trophy hunting pays their bills, he can’t in good conscience ask them to exterminate the species. “Out here, it’s boom or bust. And when it’s bust, I see it, I get it. I can relate,” says Hernandez, who grew up on a ranch. “I don’t like to tell someone how to clean their house.”

But in the open, fence-free expanse of West Texas, Hernandez says, the boundaries separating properties are porous, and creatures from sheep to snake range where they please. Under those circumstances, fecund and generalist species like aoudads are more likely to flourish and spread than finicky natives. “We don’t have a fencing problem in West Texas,” Hernandez says. “The issue is an imbalance. It’s more that the landowners don’t keep [their animals] in check.”

Bean’s situation illustrates how delicate that balancing act can be for landowners. He considers the aoudad a lucrative menace. To continue profiting off both bighorns and aoudads, Bean carefully culls the latter in areas where he wants the former to flourish. “We recognize aoudads need to be controlled,” he says, “but they have a place on the mountain.”

A wealth of anecdotal evidence does suggest that aoudads are a threat to Texas’s native wildlife, says Louis Harveson, a Sul Ross State University professor and wildlife biologist who founded the school’s Borderlands Research Institute. Biologists have witnessed aoudad rams running bighorn rams off and hoarding their ewes, disrupting the species’s reproductive cycle. Aoudads have been known to displace bighorns to lower-quality habitats with less nutritious plants and are voracious enough to strip landscapes bare. They also have been found to carry a bacterium that can cause pneumonia in domestic goats and sheep like the desert bighorn. But peer-reviewed research has yet to quantify these threats. “We’re late to the game,” says Harveson. “To be honest, we haven’t taken the time to take the data. We’re doing things we should've done 40 years ago.”

When aoudads were brought to Texas nearly a century ago, their native populations in Africa were more or less stable. But over time, habitat loss and continual hunting—accelerated by the advent of rifles and jeeps—have slowly picked aoudads off isolated mountain ranges in the Sahara and North Africa.

With an estimated wild population of between 5,000 and 10,000 individuals, the aoudad is now listed as “vulnerable” on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, and more recent surveys have cast doubt on the species’s survival in native wilderness without deliberate intervention.

For other endangered Texotics, U.S. residency has proved invaluable, according to Exotics on the Range, a 1994 biology guide that chronicles Texotics’ history. Over the last half century, coordinated efforts have transplanted Texotics back to their homelands in the eleventh hour of a species’s survival in the wild. In the 1980s, Arabian oryxes traveled from a Texas ranch to Jordan after a 60-year absence in the country. In 1984, 1988, and 1992, the Y.O. Ranch sent blackbuck antelopes to Pakistan, which in 1967 had declared them extinct within its borders. In 2016, Abu Dhabi’s environmental agency and the Missouri-based Sahara Conservation Fund began a long-term reintroduction in Chad in a preserve for the scimitar-horned oryx, a species that had gone extinct in the wild. In 2022, the Second Ark Foundation, a Texas-based organization, plans to host talks about the repatriation of dama gazelles to their native habitat in the Sahel, at the edge of the Sahara.

“It's just fortuitous for these species that there are places like Texas. There’s something mystical about it,” says Pat Condy, former executive director of the Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, a conservation center near Glen Rose, Texas. “When an animal goes extinct in the wild, it leaves a hole in the ecosystem. Isn't it better to do something to try to plug that hole?”

Texas is not the aoudad’s only refuge; it is also thriving in Spain. Some ecologists have gone so far as to propose that the aoudad’s invasion there is a blessing, as the species could occupy niches left vacant by declining livestock and would be able to withstand impending climate change. “Our steppes will be empty deserts unless we have a fauna to fill them with,” the late Spanish conservationist José Antonio Valverde wrote in his memoirs. “There will be opposition from environmentalists whose philosophical purity may have no place in an increasingly pan-zoological world.”

We may already be living in the global ecosystem envisioned by Valverde. In 2015, the ecologist Michael Marchetti warned that these conservation paradoxes will continue to occur, and suggested that such invasions could become a sort of biological “insurance” that “may represent the last or most reasonable hope for a species’ survival.”

Almost all the Texans I spoke with expressed a longing to see nature in its native range—and a willingness to extend that philosophy to aoudads in North Africa. The biggest problem facing aoudads, however, is the perception that—in Texas—they are an environmental threat, not environmentally threatened.

At the same time, the aoudad’s fate in Texas is not settled. The state can’t eradicate it without widespread support from private landowners. And yet, few stateside celebrate its biological success here, despite its disappearance elsewhere. “They’re welcome to come get all they want,” Smith says of the aoudads that have “multiplied like jackrabbits” on his land—a sentiment I heard more than once from Texas landowners. “We can help them with tens of thousands of transplants.”

Meanwhile, it has taken decades and considerable effort to slowly reestablish desert bighorn sheep in Texas. In mid-December, Hernandez led a team of state employees and volunteers in translocating 44 rams and 30 ewes. Helicopter crews circled Elephant Mountain, netting the animals one by one, then binding, blindfolding, and lifting them to a site where volunteers collected biological samples and adorned each sheep with a $2,800 radio collar. Then the sheep were released into a preselected canyon in Black Gap. Now, the transplant is out of humanity’s hands.

Hernandez first lays out the multi-day operation for me as we drive from Elephant Mountain’s base to its top, that day socked in by impenetrable fog. Under different meteorological conditions, he tells me, you can see two cities, two counties, two states, and two countries from the mountain’s peak. And, he assures me, we undoubtedly passed two species somewhere behind the fog, united by a shared backstory and notoriety.

Daniel Wilcox, a lifelong Texan and a graduate student at Sul Ross’s Borderlands Research Institution, moved to Alpine in September of last year for a research project that will use satellite collars to track the geospatial relationships of desert bighorn sheep, aoudads, and mule deer. He, too, wrestles with mixed emotions about the two species. “The aoudad and bighorns are competing,” he says. “I have this attitude—it’s sour—but when I see an aoudad, I can't help it: I hate it.” Once, as Wilcox describes it, he watched an aoudad herd so enormous that it liquified the landscape, the mass of sandy-colored bodies shimmering the desert stillness into motion. “The mountainsides were rippling,” he says. Had desert bighorn sheep populated the scene instead, it would have been a dreamscape. But months away from December’s transplant, such displays of the aoudad’s strength in West Texas can have the cast of a nightmare.