Rebeco (Sp), Gams, Gemse (G), Chamois (F). "Chamois" is a French word for wild goat. Even though the chamois is not a true goat, its scientific name is derived from the Latin rupes (cliff or rock) and capra (female goat). Until recently, all chamois were thought to belong to one species; however, scientists now recognize two: the common chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra) of central Europe and the Middle East, and the western chamois (R. pyrenaica) of Spain, adjacent parts of France, and central Italy. The former is believed to be the species introduced in New Zealand.
DESCRIPTION (male) Shoulder height 28-31 inches (70-80 cm). Weight 65-110 pounds (30-50 kg). Females are somewhat smaller.
A graceful, agile mountain animal. The short summer coat is reddish or pale brown. The winter coat of long guard hairs over thick underfur is a dark shade of brown. The underparts are pale, the rump is white. Throat, lower jaw, front of face and inside of ears are white, and there is a dark mask from ear to muzzle. The hoofs have hard, sharp edges to utilize small rock projections, and rubbery soles to grip on slippery rock. Both sexes grow short, slim black horns that are round in cross section and hook sharply backward near the tips. The female's horns can be longer than the male's, but are slimmer and sometimes lack the hooks. The longest horns reported from New Zealand were those of a female, measuring 13-1/4 inches (33.7 cm).
BEHAVIOR Gregarious, living in herds of up to 20-30 animals. Older males are usually solitary except during the rut in May-June when they join the females. Diurnal, feeding early and late, with the middle part of the day spent resting. Both a browser and a grazer. A sentinel (usually a female) is posted to watch for danger, and will warn the others with shrill whistles. All senses are excellent, but eyesight is exceptional. Very agile and elusive, handling precipitous terrain with ease.
HABITAT Prefers high-altitude areas with continuous cover. Summer range consists of open tussock grassland near precipitous, rocky country. Descends to subalpine forest and scrub in winter.
DISTRIBUTION The South Island of New Zealand, where they are widespread throughout the high country. Also occur at low elevations in some areas. Chamois are probably the most numerous wild ungulates on the South Island. This is the only free-ranging chamois population outside Europe and the Middle East. Chamois are also found on private properties in South Island.
REMARKS The first chamois reached New Zealand in 1907, when two males and six females, a gift from Emperor Franz Josef of Austria, arrived in Wellington. Others from the same source arrived in 1914. (It is assumed they were Alpine chamois [R. r. rupicapra], but there is no way to be certain.) They have adapted well to their new home; more than 82,000 were killed by government cullers between 1936-1968.
Chamois ranging freely in the mountains of New Zealand are first-class game animals. The best trophies for mounting purposes are taken May-August when the coats are dark and thick.