Lee Richardson Zoo

Karakul Sheep

Order:  Artiodactyla - even-toed ungulates

Family:  Bovidae - antelopes, cattle, buffalo, goats, and sheep

Scientific Name:  Ovis aries aries karakul


Description The Karakul sheep is a medium-sized, broad-tailed sheep.  The upper part of the tail stores fat for times when food is scarce, similar to the hump of a camel.  This is a tall sheep with a long, narrow body and head.  The ears vary within the breed, but are usually long and point downward.  Most rams have horns, which vary from short to large outwardly curved spirals.  Ewes usually do not have horns.  This breed has a dominant black gene, so most lambs are born black.  As they mature, they take on other colors.  Adults are usually brown or bluish gray, but silver, blue, gray, golden tan, reddish brown, and white adults are also seen.  Adult males weigh 175-225 pounds, and females weigh 100-150 pounds.

Home Range:   Karakul sheep are native to central Asia.  As a domesticated breed, they have spread with shepherds to parts of Africa, Canada, and the U.S.


Habitat Type:   Originally high-altitude deserts, but are adaptable to many other habitats.


Reproduction:  As a domestic breed, Karakul sheep are usually kept in managed flocks.  Sexes are usually kept separately except during breeding, when individual sheep are placed together.  Where sexes are kept together, several dominant rams mate with all females.  Karakul sheep can breed out of season, breeding up to three times every two years.  Usually a single lamb is born, but twins are also seen.  The ewes are very attentive mothers.  When the flock is threatened, they join together in a protective circle with the lambs in the center.  Karakul sheep have higher lamb survival rates than other breeds.


Diet in the Wild:  Vegetation, especially grasses.


Diet in the Zoo:   Alfalfa, ADF 16 pellets


General Information:  The Karakul is one of approximately 1,200 breeds of domestic sheep.  Named after the village of Karakul in Uzbekistan, the Karakul breed is probably one of the oldest.  Archaeologists have found evidence of Karakul pelts from 1400 B.C., and carvings in ancient Babylonian temples probably represent Karakul sheep.  The sheep provided shepherds with milk, meat, tallow, and fiber.  Their wool was used for clothing, footwear, carpets, and other products, and their pelts were prized trade items on the ancient Silk Road of China.  This animal was also know as the “fur sheep”.  Karakul sheep are very hardy and adaptable to many climates.  Their teeth are very strong and last longer than the teeth of other breeds.  They can survive temperature extremes, and they are able to survive on marginal lands and in seasons of food scarcity that might kill other sheep.  They are also resistant to internal parasites. 
Karakul sheep have been especially important to the culture of the Kurds, an ancient people living in the mountains of northern Iraq.  Until recent times, each Kurdish clan kept its own flock, and survived by using and trading the products of the sheep.  The average flock includes 1000 sheep, tended by 5 shepherd families and 10 large dogs.  The dogs protect the flock from predators, but are not used for herding (as this species does not herd well).  The Kurdish shepherds spend summers in the mountains with their flocks to avoid excessive heat.  When they return in the fall, they decorate the sheep with garlands and hold a festival to celebrate the event.  Most of the Kurds have become urbanized in recent years, but some are trying to keep their traditional way of life.  Others have emigrated to other countries (including the United States), bringing small flocks of Karakul sheep with them.


Conservation Status:  As a domestic breed, Karakul sheep are very common in Africa and Asia, but rare in the United States and Canada (numbering fewer than 2000).


Predators:  Wolves, bears, and other carnivores.




American Karakul Sheep Registry website


Walker’s Mammals of the World, Ed. 6, Vol. 2.  1999.  R.M. Nowak.  Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.  pp. 1231-1238.