A Central Asia Conservation Initiative from the Wild Sheep Foundation


Now a member of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the Wild Sheep Foundation is expanding its efforts, expertise and programs in the world’s largest and most diverse Caprinae habitat—the remote republics of Central Asia. 

Over the years, the Wild Sheep Foundation, WSF, has supported important conservation actions in Central Asia, from Caprinae (wild sheep and goats) studies by wildlife professionals to habitat enhancement. WSF also has supported efforts to establish repeatable argali population surveys by Dr. Mike Frisina (a member of the Caprinae Specialist Group and a former member of WSF’s Professional Resource Advisory Board) and has responded to the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of Management Authority’s requests for information on Central Asia species.

However, in 2018, fresh from retooling its North American Wild Sheep Conservation Strategy, the WSF Conservation Team recognized that it needed a similarly expanded and strengthened strategy for Central Asia as well. Thus was born CACI, the Central Asia Conservation Initiative.

Many challenges 
North America’s Caprinae population is made up of only four wild sheep and their cousins, the Rocky Mountain goat and the musk ox. By comparison, CACI is an ambitious undertaking—Central Asia has dozens of argali and urial sheep species along with ibex, markhor and other less-known Caprinae. [Ed. note: See also the seminal CIC Caprinae Atlas of the World by Gerhard Damm & Nicolas Franco and published in 2014 by CIC, the International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation & Rowland Ward.]

A Tajik markhor ram, with its characteristic corkscrew horns. Christian Siegenthaler photo


As well, while the countries of Central Asia—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Mongolia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan—have some outstanding wildlife professionals in their environment ministries, NGOs and scientific institutes, little funding is available for wildlife and habitat enhancement.

Global distribution of all Caprinae species, from the CIC Caprinae Atlas of the World, 2014.


Distribution of argali (Ovis ammon spp) in Central Asia, from the CIC Caprinae Atlas of the World, 2014.

Although their management efforts are significantly influenced by the US’s Endangered species Act enhancement policies, the IUCN’s Sustainable Use and Livelihoods (SULi) and  Caprinae Specialist Group recommendations and Red List assessments, and CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) export/import quotas, there are no established citizen- or international sportsman-driven conservation funding mechanisms in the region.

What Caprinae conservation funds there are come from communities who use the species in some fashion and from a few commercial hunting outfitters. These interests do not appear to communicate well and in fact often work against each other. WSF’s Central Asia Conservation Initiative is designed to build collaboration by using the sale of conservation permits to pay for actions that benefit wildlife and allow access by local people and hunting and wildlife-viewing outfitters. (Experience has shown that wildlife/adventure tourism and hunting can coexist well, as in Tajikistan’s markhor areas.)

These conservation permits are equivalent to North America’s state, provincial, territorial and tribal auction tags sold by WSF, where funds are directed back to conservation work. On average, these auction tags, generally one or two per jurisdiction, generate about 75% of the funds for wild sheep conservation in the issuing jurisdiction.

A duzi-shikar (traditional hunter) from Zigar, Tajikistan, with the skull of an old ibex found dead in the spring. Stefan Michel phot

The evolution of the program

In 2018, the Wild Sheep Foundation was admitted as a full member of IUCN, and then helped sponsor and produce the first Central Asian IUCN meeting of the SULi subcommittee, near Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. At SULi request, WSF gave presentations on horn-plugging (a method of permanently marking and recording horns, whether hunted or found; we produced and presented a video on the topic in both English and Russian) and on the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.

Also in 2018, WSF and SCIF, the Safari Club International Foundation, signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Kazakhstan’s Tourism Office to develop sustainable-use conservation funding for the protection of argali and their habitat. Thanks to a generous WSF member, we were also able to pay for the first large-scale scientific population survey of argali in Kazakhstan.

Participants in the first Central Asian IUCN meeting of the SULi subcommittee, near Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, in 2018. Maksim Levitin photo

In 2019, in collaboration with Cornell University, WSF funded disease surveillance studies in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and we welcomed our first Central Asian affiliate, the Kazakhstan Wildlife Foundation, into the WSF family. Also last year, at our home base in Bozeman, Montana, WSF hosted (with IUCN Caprinae Specialist Group endorsement and SCIF co-sponsorship) the 7th World Mountain Ungulate Conference. This was the first time this important meeting was held in North America; it was well attended, with 213 delegates from 20 countries who gave 51 oral presentations and 19 “poster presentations” covering 23 species of wild sheep and goats, nine cervids, one antelope and three carnivores.

Thus far in 2020, we have signed an MOU with Mongolia to help fund argali conservation through a conservation-permit program, and a similar agreement with Oxus Holding to promote and help fund mountain ungulate conservation and sustainable livelihoods in Tajikistan. (This was alongside our usual work, including our conservation staff’s scientific input to, and editorial review of, North American species assessments for the IUCN Caprinae Specialist Group.)

Also this year, we have met twice with the US Fish and Wildlife Service to discuss our expanding CACI program. During the 2020 WSF Sheep Show, we raised $447,000 from the sale of conservation permits in Mongolia (one tag) and Tajikistan (five tags) to be directed to on-the-ground conservation work involving local communities. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, hunters have been unable to go, and these funds are on hold until travel resumes.

We have also been involved in producing a number of nature videos for Kazakh TV, documenting everything from how sustainable use pays for wildlife restoration in North America to the 2018 Kazakhstan argali survey and wildlife resources in Tajikistan.

Nura Tau argali (Ovis ammon severtzovi, aka Kyzl Kum or Severtzov’s argali) rams and ewes in the Nura Tau Mountains, Uzbekistan—the southwestern fringe of the argali distribution range. Richard Reading photo/CIC Caprinae Atlas of the World, 2014

Many goals 

Our new Initiative’s broad goal is to “establish science-based conservation practices and reliable funding sources within Central Asian countries to conduct and fund repeatable population monitoring surveys, habitat enhancement, disease surveillance and sustainable use harvest quotas supported by all stakeholders.”

Overall, the Initiative integrates various sciences into building conservation capacity across Central Asia. There are 14 interrelated program elements. These include the development of a Central Asia Caprinae Expert Group, to establish and coordinate scientific population monitoring, set objectives for herd demographics and recruitment, define population boundaries, identify seasonal habitat and movement patterns, develop habitat enhancement programs, implement health monitoring and genetic analyses and calculate sustainable harvest rates and allocations.

We will also address poaching by introducing a horn-plugging program that not only permanently identifies legally harvested animals, but also provides age and biometric data to support management decisions. It is important to note that science-based wildlife management that directly involves local communities should also reduce poaching.

Building conservation capacity in Central Asia will require working closely with IUCN’s SULi and Caprinae Specialist Group to contribute to assessments of Caprinae species worldwide. All elements will stress the importance of building in-country ownership and commitment by emphasizing collaboration across the board—with communities, researchers, managers, government officials, universities and CITES authorities in Central Asia, North America and Europe.

Expertise & ownership

CACI has two unique elements: One builds technical, scientific and management expertise for key officials in Central Asia through direct, professional exchanges with experts in North America. The other element supports the use of managed hunting (by both residents and international visitors) to sustain habitats and healthy wildlife populations, thus developing resident “ownership” of Caprinae species.

Our new Central Asia Initiative requires reliable funding. As in North America, where sustainable use pays for restoration, conservation and biodiversity of species and their habitats, WSF is using conservation permits to generate funds for in-country conservation programs. To assure accountability, consistency and transparency, WSF is entering into MOUs with Central Asian governments, in-country NGOs and scientific institutions to assure that those revenues are directed to “on the ground” conservation.

Going global

In 1974, a group of wild sheep enthusiasts formed the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep, to manage and restore wild sheep populations across the continent. FNAWS was incorporated as a non-profit in 1977 and began gathering members and raising funds for wild sheep and habitat conservation. In 2008, FNAWS became WSF, the Wild Sheep Foundation, to expand its vision worldwide. Since then, WSF has had requests for assistance from Europe, Pakistan, Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and China. We are excited and honored to be collaborating in conservation with our new partners in Central Asia. We are confident that together we will fulfill our purpose, “To put and keep wild sheep on the mountain.”

Kurt Alt has served as the Conservation Director, Montana and International Sheep & Goat Programs, for the Wild Sheep Foundation since 2015. Previously he worked for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks for 35 years as a wildlife biologist and Southwest Montana Wildlife Manager. He is also past President of the Northwest Section of the Wildlife Society. Kurt holds Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Fish and Wildlife Management from Montana State University. 

Banner image: A mature Altai argali (Ovis ammon ammon) ram in the Altai Mountains of Mongolia. Of the world’s sheep, the Altai Argali has the most massive horns. B. Batkhuyag photo/ CIC Caprinae Atlas of the World, 2014