World Wildlife Day is fast approaching (3 March) and this year’s theme is the “The future of wildlife is in our hands”. This brings on a reflection that without the support of local people and communities that share the habitat with snow leopards and their prey, the future of snow leopards would be a gloomy one. So as we prepare to celebrate the wildlife, we are also celebrating the people that make it possible to ensure the survival of snow leopards into the future. Today I want to celebrate one person and the community-based conservancy he has lead since 2012.
Mahan and “Burgut”
One night in February of last year I was pacing back and forth, dialing a phone number over and over again. He was not answering. He had missed several check-ins. I imagined the worst: killed; kidnapped; caught in an avalanche; a car accident; or maybe a heart attack while driving. All possibilities when you work in conservation in Central Asia. As I could not stop my mind from playing out all these possible scenarios, I started thinking of the consequences of losing Mahan: to his family, community and friends. To snow leopards and wildlife conservation in the eastern Pamirs in Tajikistan.
Luckily Mahan had just misplaced his phone. He was fine. Kyrgyz brother, friend, colleague, father of three young children, husband, Mahan is an ethnic Kyrgyz in his mid-30s who grew up in Alichur, in the eastern Pamirs of Tajikistan. His face shows the wrinkles and the tan of many hours spent out in the cold and the glaring high altitude sun. Hunting, what we call poaching, has been part of his life until he realized that it was not sustainable, that the ibex and Marco Polo sheep (part of the argali family) were fast disappearing.
He had met Munavvar, a hunter who later became a conservationist, and who was in the process of establishing a community-based conservancy in the Wakhan in Tajikistan and started thinking about doing the same. He talked to other traditional hunters in Alichur and over time convinced them that it was time to protect the few remaining mountain ungulates. He connected with our team and Stefan Michel, of the IUCN Caprinae Specialist Group, who shepherded him and the supporters he gathered, through the process of establishing a community-based conservancy and getting the land assigned. Getting the land assigned in this case means the right to receive a quota (for subsistence and trophy hunting of species that are legal to hunt) in exchange for protecting the land and its wildlife. The “Burgut” (which means golden eagle in Kyrgyz) conservancy was born.
If you protect them they will come (and reproduce)
For the past four years, Panthera helped Mahan and the conservancy learn the ropes of monitoring wildlife: how to use GPS units, rangefinders, count the ungulates, use camera traps. In the hands of Mahan and his team, GPS units and camera traps have become truly empowering tools. With the establishment of the conservancy, came the responsibility to patrol the grounds assigned and prevent poaching. Camera traps were placed for monitoring and for anti-poaching purposes. Within months, poachers coming from different villages, were deterred from illegally hunting because they knew they could be caught on camera.
In 2012 there were a little over 200 ibex and 100 Marco Polo sheep. Subsequent annual surveys kept recording a steady increase in the numbers of mountain ungulates. During the survey conducted in December 2015, we counted 728 ibex and 508 Marco Polo sheep. Do the math: this is an astounding increase. Prey availability is correlated with snow leopard presence. In 2012, we did not record any snow leopard on camera trap. In 2013, one snow leopard. In 2014, 3 snow leopards. We expect that when we conduct the next camera trap survey we will see a higher number.
Clearly these population increases and the recording of a greater number of snow leopards is a sign that the anti-poaching work done by the conservancy members is working. In addition to camera trapping, conservancy members are patrolling the valleys on motorcycle, car and foot. In the summer when the ground is dry they hide nails in the ground to slow down poacher vehicles and motorcycles.
Sustainable use: the conservation driver in the Pamirs
Mahan and his team are protecting the ibex and the Marco Polo sheep because of the realization that sooner rather than later they would have nothing left to hunt and to feed their families. Panthera doesn’t pay them to go on patrols. Rangers don’t get salaries from us. We support them through training but they do not have an immediate economic incentive to spend hours each day patrolling. All these rangers have families to care for, livestock to tend to, and paying jobs to attend to. Spending time in the mountains patrolling is a cost to them and they cannot even hunt anything. So what is the incentive? Other than the sheer realization that either they protect animals that are part of the cultural heritage of the Kyrgyz people (see the Kaiberen story) or lose them forever, the fact that there are foreign hunters willing to pay thousands of dollars to shoot trophy sized ibex and Marco Polo sheep (USD 5000 for an ibex; and USD 30,000 for a Marco Polo sheep) makes an incredible difference, especially if the proceeds from the hunts are invested in projects and activities that benefit the community as a whole.
Foreign hunters are only interested in the trophy and generally the meat is shared in the community. Mahan’s conservancy hosted its first two ibex hunts in the winter of 2015. The conservancy has used the money to pay the rangers, repair a vehicle used for the surveys and for guiding eco-tourists as well as make upgrades to a tourist guesthouse. It has also helped some families with dire medical needs.
On a global scale there is much debate over trophy hunting as a conservation tool, yet sustainable use through trophy hunting of a very small number of ibex and Marco Polo is really no different from a sustainable harvest of elk and deer in the US. The conservancies do not support trophy hunting of snow leopards and other cats, bears or wolves, although trapping of wolves that are blamed for killing livestock and spreading rabies is still a very sore issue we are grappling with.
The predator-proofing of corrals, thanks to the support from the Big Cats Initiative, has in parallel generated a lot of support for conservation of snow leopards and other carnivores.
Why nature tourism alone is not an incentive for conservation in the High Pamirs
The Aga Khan Foundation, especially through the Mountain Societies Development Program (MSDSP), and the Pamir Eco-Cultural Tourism Association (PECTA) have done a stellar job in promoting the Pamirs as a tourist destination. Matthias Poeschel of MSDSP and Zhandyia Zoolshoeva of PECTA merged their incredible energy and ideas to put yak riding in Alichur on the map and to promote tourism in the Pamirs especially to European tourists.
Tajikistan and its Gorno-Badakhsan Autonomous Region, where the Pamir mountain range stretches, are full of surprises: political instability, landslides, floods and earthquakes; all too frequently these elements shut this region down to the world or scare tourists away. So to date, Tajikistan still attracts largely the adventure tourist, the kind that does not have too much money to spend. In contrast, hunters coming to Tajikistan do not seem to be particularly affected by these factors.
Therefore, while it would be ideal if monetarily nature tourism could replace hunting tourism, this is still not possible in Tajikistan, under the current circumstances.
It is hard to tell what Alichur and neighboring villages will look like in the future. Mahan dreams of a good education and life for his children, Uluhubek, Abdullo and Uroke. And so do many of the people in Alichur. There could be dramatic changes one day, maybe the children of Mahan and the other villagers will choose a different life for themselves away from Alichur and then new and different conservation challenges might emerge. But until then, the future of snow leopards and their prey is best preserved in the hands of people like Mahan.