Breed Profile: Hawaiian Ibex Goats
A Feral Goat at the Heart of Controversy
Breed: The Hawaiian Ibex goat is not a true ibex, but rather a feral goat, also known as the Hawaiian feral goat or Spanish goat.
Origin: Goats were first released on the Hawaiian Islands by Captain James Cook and his crew during their third and final voyage of discovery in the Pacific. English goats from the British King George III were carried on board as gifts to islanders. Goats from African ports were also taken on board as food provisions. On discovering the Hawaiian Islands in 1778, Cook gifted one male and two female goats to islanders on Ni‘ihau. On his return in 1779 he released an unspecified number into the wild at Kealakekua Bay on Hawai‘i Island. The idea was to populate the island with a food source for sailors on future expeditions. Cook was killed during this final visit. However, British Captain Vancouver explored the islands in 1792 and introduced one male and one female to Kaua‘i. The islanders cared for these animals and used them for meat, milk, and skin. Goat reproduction was rapid, and some animals escaped into inaccessible terrain, founding wild colonies of ibex goats on seven islands.
The Ibex Goat at the Center of Controversy
History: With no natural predators, an unoccupied habitat covered in a rich and diverse vegetation, and a mild climate, the goat population rapidly multiplied. Ibex goats were so prolific that in 1850 islanders exported 25,519 goat skins.
Indigenous vegetation has no natural protection against the ravages of herbivore foraging and trampling, and local flora soon lost out to foreign invasive species that had already evolved defenses to herbivores. Ibex goats preferred the tender indigenous species to exotic ones, and local plant life and wildlife habitats were soon endangered. This was compounded by erosion caused by goat hooves. Although most introduced species have contributed to this effect, goats are considered the most destructive.
Conservationists and national parks have attempted to eradicate ibex goats through total culls, but have come into conflict with hunters who wish to ensure a continual supply of game. Where national parks and private ranches have no fenced boundaries, it has been impossible to keep goats out of the parks. In the 1970s, in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, areas were fenced off to allow local plants to regrow and goats were driven from these areas. The most elusive goats were difficult to eliminate and were coaxed out of hiding in the 1980s by “Judas goats”, tame animals with radio collars that joined herds so that they could be located, caught, or shot. Finally, fenced areas were goat-free and could allow managed recovery of native plants. However, invasive vegetation out-competes native flora. Biologists suggest a close study of the interaction between grazers and vegetation to maximize use of nonnative animals to control invading foreign plants, as well as expanding fencing plans.
The eruption of Kīlauea in May 2018 prompted people to rescue goats and other livestock. However, it is unlikely to effect the ibex goat population, which tends to inhabit higher areas.
Conservation Status: None. The ibex goat is not recognized or protected.
A Characterization of the Hawaiian Ibex Goat
Standard Description: Small, hardy, agile, and adaptable; short, shiny coat; no goat wattles. Males have beards. Both sexes bear horns, although they are much larger in males. Males have either the curved-back “ibex”-style horns or swept-out “Spanish”-type horns, hence the popular names among hunters of Hawaiian “ibex” goat for those that curve straight backwards and “Spanish” goat for those that curve outwards. However, both styles were known in the old English breed.
Coloring: Mainly solid black or various shades of brown, but some goats bear markings or patches.
Height to Withers: females 14–36 inches/average 24 inches (35–91 cm/average 62 cm); males 16–36 inches/average 26 inches (40–92 cm/average 66 cm)*.
Weight: females 35–100 pounds/average 66 pounds (16–45 kg/average 30 kg); males 45–105 pounds/average 70 pounds (20–47 kg/average 32 kg)*.
The Value of Hawaiian Ibex Goats
Biodiversity: Their origin suggests old English Milchgoat ancestry, which is near extinction in the UK. However, British ports welcomed various goat varieties from trading nations, and cross-breeding started to occur around ports during the 18th century. On the other hand, gifts for islanders were supposedly taken from the king’s English stock. In addition, there may have been cross-breeding with goats taken on board at a stop-over on the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa, and possibly other ports. As an isolated population which has quickly adapted to new environments, Hawaiian ibex goats probably represent a unique gene pool, in the same way that Arapawa goats and San Clemente goats have conserved biodiversity from their distant ancestry. Important genes that are lost to the predominant commercial population may be conserved in this population. Genetic studies would be required to confirm this. Local adaptation provides hardy traits that may be of value to the future of the islands’ livestock.
Temperament: Active, agile, curious, friendly and easy to handle when tamed, and low-maintenance.
Popular Use: Islanders traditionally keep ibex goats for milk and meat. Small homesteads also employ them for jungle clearance, as they are adept at accessing difficult terrain. Hunters maintain populations on private ranches for sport. Hunting vacations constitute a tourist trade.
Adaptability: Highly adapted to a variety of environments in a mild climate. Especially suited to difficult terrain and inaccessible locations. Repeated culls have probably selected for the most secretive and wary survivors.
Quotes: “The Hawaiian Ibex is nothing like our domestic packers and dairy goats. They are quick and curious, agile and sharp. They are a joy to watch and sweet in their interactions. Watching them grow side-by-side offers a fascinating compare and contrast with our packers. We are enjoying every step of their bouncy little journey and we love the well-managed Hawaiian Ibex!” “Amazing creatures and useful animals; although good management is key!” Julie LaTendresse, Goat with the Flow, Puna, Hawai‘i.
Bonsey, W.E., 2011. Goats in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park: a story to be remembered. Unpublished report to the National Park Service.
Chynoweth, M., Lepczyk, C.A., Litton, C.M. and Cordell, S. 2010. Feral goats in the Hawaiian Islands: understanding the behavioral ecology of nonnative ungulates with GPS and remote sensing technology. In Proceedings of the 24th Vertebrate Pest Conference (pp. 41-45).
Yocom, C.F. 1967. Ecology of feral goats in Haleakala National Park, Maui, Hawaii. American Midland Naturalist, pp. 418-451.
*measurements from Haleakalā National Park, Maui, in 1947 and 1963/4
Lead photo: “Following mum …” by marneejill/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0
Originally published in the September/October 2018 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.