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
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
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
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.