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March 1998
Capturing the Cretan Wild Goat

By Suzanne Fogarty


Imagine you are standing among the remains of a World War II Italian Gunnery installation on an island off the coast of Crete. The air is warm, the sky is dark; your flashlight is tautly by your side, your breathing still, your heart hammering furiously against your chest. Suddenly, you hear the clatter of hooves against rock, followed by the snapping of twigs. Turning to your left, you catch glimpses of silver in the moonlight. Stumbling forward, you reach out and grasp the swept back horns of a wild goat before it disappears into a forest of Juniper. And yes, if you are lucky, you call out that you have captured one. Members of your team emerge from the darkness, ready to assist you.

This experience was just one of the several that I had as a volunteer on an Earthwatch expedition this past summer. I was one of 10 volunteers who took part in the capture and study of the Agrimi, the Cretan wild goat. Although the Agrimi's natural habitat is the high cliffs and rocky precipices of the White Mountains of western Crete, the animals in this area are under constant threat from development and poaching. However, it is cross-breeding with the domestic goat that largely threatens the survival of this species. As a result, Greek conservationists have attempted to isolate populations of wild goat, moving them to off-shore islands.

As a recipient of an educational award for teachers sponsored by Earthwatch and the school in which I work, St. Ann's in Brooklyn Heights, I spent two intense weeks studying this rare species. Although the Cretan government has taken steps to conserve this animal, such as providing protected island sites, the task of separating the hybrid offspring from the wild goats has been a very difficult task. Therefore, the over-arching goals of our research was to draw a distinction between the hybrid and wild members of the group. The samples of DNA taken from each animal are currently being processed. It is this data that will help to determine their genetic composition.

Most of our work took place on the small off-shore island of Agios Pantes, one of the several reserves put aside for the wild goat. In collaboration with the forestry service in this region, we repaired and added to the corral that already existed at this site. We captured the animals at night, processing them one at a time. To do this, we learned a method of corralling which required the majority of volunteers.

As we spread out in a wide arc, we moved forward slowly and quietly, attempting to surround a small group of Agrimi. If all went well, someone would catch an animal and immediately call for help. However, field work is unpredictable and requires flexibility. This particular population, for example, traveled in a group unlike other populations previously studied. Agile animals, some of the wild goats slipped through the weaker parts of the wire-mesh fence that we had repaired. Therefore, it was often necessary to station people at these particular areas to guard against a mass exodus.

Collecting Data and DNA

I was at such location when I caught my first wild goat, a young male. With the assistance of another volunteer, we wrestled him to the ground and quickly blindfolded him to calm him down. Once captured, he was brought into the processing area, a small space set apart from the larger corral. It was here that he was weighed, measured and ear-tagged, all by flashlight. The most essential element to the research involved was taking DNA samples from the main artery in the goat's necks. Again, this data will reveal the status of the population as either pure or hybrid.

The results of our efforts were positive. For example, we were invited to have dinner with the mayor of the Agios Nicolaos region. This gave us the opportunity to share the data that we had collected thus far and to suggest ideas for future research. We had recently discovered that our research site, Agios Pantes, was under the threat of being turned over to the tourist industry and used for development. We emphasized that the survival of this particular population of animals was contingent upon the island remaining a protected site. We suggested that the Greek forestry service improve the vegetation on the island. In fact, the plant life available was not enough to support the population of Agrimi on Agios Pantes. Therefore, a short term decision to transport some of the goats to another protected site was immediately put into effect. The long-term goal of planting more vegetation to accommodate the remaining group of animals became a priority.

I have always been fond of wildlife, but hardly believed that I would be captivated by goats. Yet, observing and handling this animal brought me close to its plight, awakening a desire to do more for the endangered species of our world. It is this excitement for learning that I hope to pass on to my second grade students, encouraging them to question and think about the role they play in their own environment.

Although I left the island of Crete sunburned, the remnants of the ubiquitous brown dust on my skin and a backpack stuffed with dirty clothes, I was utterly satisfied. My experience as an Earthwatch volunteer enriched my understanding of wildlife biology, pulling it out of the dusty pages of my old science textbooks. Now, to put this knowledge to use.

Suzanne Fogarty teaches second grade at St. Ann's in Brooklyn Heights where her school curriculum last year focused on the plight of endangered species.


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