Human Relationships with Wildlife in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan
The author has worked in the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan since 2017—with ANCOT (the Association of Nature Conservation Organizations of Tajikistan), Panthera and WSF, the Wild Sheep Foundation—in a program helping women to take a role in conservation, guiding, wildlife monitoring, tourism and sustainable hunting expeditions. Around the world, she has observed people’s strong feelings about nature, their environment and animals.
Here in the US, my work revolves around our passion for wildlife. Culturally, we have defined what our wildlife means to us, and I began to wonder how other peoples value their endemic species. Thus I have spent much time talking with locals, guides and fellow employees across Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan about how they relate to their wildlife and also to their hunting laws. Everyone was happy to share, and I hope I can appropriately convey what I learned.
They believe that their high-alpine ungulates possess a sort of power, and they take great pride in them. Conversations about these species often start with a smile and a willingness to share. In both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, it’s not uncommon to encounter bronze statues of ibex and markhor (wild goats) and argali and Marco Polo mountain sheep by the roadside. Villagers often make their own versions of these statues or paint pictures of the animals, both to decorate their homes and to sell to tourists. Often, we see the animals represented on flags and clothing. Horns of every species are displayed at border crossings as symbols of national pride in their wildlife—and also, since they were often confiscated from poachers, pride in catching those who killed them illegally.
However, the animals are represented more often in art than in physical reality. Here, in this region that produces the biggest, most impressive wild sheep in the world, it is relatively rare to find horns or other animal parts used as decoration. Even in the home of Mahan, the lead guide of the conservancy in Alichur, who once shot a prized Marco Polo ram, the horns were not on display. Only a small photo hung on the wall. This was not for lack of pride, for he told me the story of the hunt with great pleasure and then favored us with a dinner of that very sheep. It was explained to me that horns are out of favor as decoration because they are not “modern”—it was more common to decorate with horns, skulls and furs a generation ago.
However, trophy hunting itself is uncommon among the local people. If they hunt, they do so for meat and typically leave the horns behind. (This is especially true if the animal was harvested without a license). But even subsistence hunting is rare. Although meat is a very important part of their diet, for that they rely largely on their domestic sheep and yaks as well as rabbits and other small game.
In this harsh environment, every part of an animal, game or domestic, has value and is used, including every organ and the tongue, eyes and brain. The blood goes into sausage. On the rare occasions when a big game animal is killed, often the whole village celebrates with a feast. The intestines are dried and sculpted into a duck or other animal that becomes a centerpiece of the feast. The hide makes clothing, bedding and rugs. The bones become game pieces for children.
This culture’s deep respect for its wildlife is reflected in the many legends of the old hunters of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, tales that are passed from generation to generation. One of the most famous stories was translated for me:
Kojojash was the greatest hunter in Kyrgyzstan. He was known as the best provider of game and supplied all the villagers with meat. He spent many days in the mountains hunting ibex.
Finally, after years of hunting, Kojojash realized that he was not seeing as many ibex as he used to. He would spend days scanning the hillsides, as he always had, but couldn’t spot even a single ibex. One day the She-God, Mother Ibex, the queen of all the animals, approached him at the top of a mountain and spoke to him.
She was displeased and stamped her feet. She gave him a strict warning: If he continued to kill as many ibex as he had, she would curse him, and he would not be able to return to the village as he had so many times before.
But Kojojash was a prideful hunter, as no man could hunt like he did. He ignored her warning and hunted on for the rest of the day and into the evening. As it became colder and night began to fall, Kojojash found himself lost. He had never been lost before. When finally he recovered the path, he discovered that he was not lost but trapped. Mother Ibex had made the mountains around him jagged and impossible to escape. The wind howled and the snow rose around him. He had been cursed for overhunting. Because he did not honor Mother Ibex, he froze to death.
Because Kojojash refused the warning, the Pamir range and all the mountains of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan became steep and challenging to hunt, often cloaked in winds and extreme weather. This allows only the best and most dedicated hunters to reach the ibex . . .
This warning is passed on from hunter to hunter in the villages, where it is believed that if you do in fact take more than you should, you will be cursed. These curses can take many forms—blindness, the death of a child or harm to your closest relatives. If you do not hunt sustainably, you will face punishment from Mother Ibex. But if you respect wildlife, you will in turn will be respected by wildlife.
Respect for wildlife is sometimes challenged by conflict with the apex predators of the region, the snow leopard and the wolf. But, often with the help of strategies developed by Panthera, people are generally open to non-lethal solutions. In many villages I have seen livestock gathered for the night behind predator-proof fencing. Other technology is also available—“fox lighting,” for example, which flickers all night to resemble a human with a flashlight guarding the livestock. So far, it is proving effective.
All the young women I train say that their favorite animal is the snow leopard. But for the wolf, there is no admiration. These wolves are much smaller than North American gray wolves; they resemble coyotes, but they are much more dangerous. They have attacked children in the villages, and in March 2017 wolves killed two adult women in eastern Tajikistan. (Because of the rocky terrain, it is difficult to bury coffins deeply. Wolves have been known to dig up the remains and so perhaps develop a taste for humans.) Guns are uncommon in the villages, so the most common protection against wolves are the Asian shepherd dogs found at every household door. I have been repeatedly warned against going outside at night and on every hike, Mahan insists that we carry his 12-gauge shotgun.
The villagers’ concern is not just for themselves but also for their revered ibex and Marco Polo sheep. It is very apparent that wolves impact the mountain ungulates. I often found wild sheep bones from a wolf kill. Local people who manage to kill a wolf use the pelt for clothing or sell it in the city. International visitors who have come to hunt sheep often buy wolf permits as well.
Few local employees of Panthera have hunted or have any interest in hunting; most of the girls in the conservancy training program had never even fired a gun. There’s no fear or rejection involved—simply little or no family hunting tradition. Their dedication to our program stems from an interest in conservation. (Being a woman hunter in this culture is very non-traditional, but this does not hold any of them back.) The few local people who hunt tend to be the older generation, and typically they don’t hunt sheep or goats. They focus on small game—pheasant, snowcock, marmot, rabbit—and wolves.
Guns are very expensive and require a special permit, which is costly and not easy to obtain. Hunting licenses too are expensive. Of the few firearms in private hands, many are shotguns and few rifles have the optical sights needed for hunting such elusive animals in vast open terrain.
Many areas of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have been closed to hunting because of losses in both ibex and markhor populations. Most villagers welcome this if it means that the species can recover—they respect Mother Ibex. Tajikistan has seven community conservancy hunting regions; two were closed to hunting (local and international) in 2017. These closures will cycle through the regions in order to let animal populations recover. Most people respect the law and believe that these closures will result in more opportunities for bigger trophies. There is some fear, though, that areas that are still open may be susceptible to overharvesting.
What happens, I wanted to know, to people who do not respect the game laws and what is done about illegal hunting, or poaching? The conservancy guides and rangers are men, 30 to 50 years old, and many have a history of poaching. Ex-poachers make excellent staff because not only do they know how and where to hunt, they also know how to nab other poachers. There are generally two kinds of poachers: Those who are out for trophy horns and those who want meat without benefit of a license. Even though the latter are usually local villagers, they are not treated or prosecuted any differently than the trophy poachers.
As an investment in wildlife, border patrols are being trained to find and identify animal parts that are being transported illegally, and also to deal with the perpetrators themselves. Poachers often try to bribe their way across the border with cash. To combat this, border guards receive a reward of 30% of any fines levied against poachers. This has proven to be very effective.
In 2015, a large haul of wildlife parts was seized at Chon-Alay, on the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Officials arrested a transport driver with four argali and seven ibex, all illegal. The confiscated horns and hides are still in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, while the investigation continues and paperwork proceeds through CITES. The hunters have not been charged yet, either, as it is common for foreign hunters not to be aware they are hunting illegally. It is currently believed that Russian outfitters were responsible, but even with a finger to point, prosecutions are often difficult because of corruption in the government.
I have wondered why more of the local people—those who can afford proper rifles and licenses and so forth—don’t hunt their big game and why legal obstacles seem to be put in their way. A Kyrgyzstani conservation official explained that if people were given more opportunity to hunt, the lack of management knowledge would lead to overharvesting. Poaching would likely also increase—not for small amounts of meat, but for trophy animals and horns. Then I couldn’t help but wonder how international hunters are perceived, as it seems they get special precedence over local people who interact with this wildlife daily. How are American and European hunters viewed? Is there animosity toward wealthy foreigners who take animals that are off-limits to the locals?
What I found was quite astounding. Many locals, both residents and wildlife guides alike, are very pleased, often ecstatic, with the number of overseas hunters they host. Embedded in this happiness was a simple principle: With foreign hunters comes income, money that provides opportunity and support for the communities. There seems to be no resentment toward those who come to kill their revered game. Were these answers tailored to me because I am an outsider from America? I don’t know, but they seemed sincere and I got similar answers from not only the guides, but also from villagers who have no direct contact with international hunters.
Throughout my trips, I was able to get a small idea of how wildlife is viewed among the peoples living in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. What I found is a deep respect for the wildlife. The rangers and those involved in these conservancies have conservation at heart. They want to see their populations of wildlife thrive and want to provide great hunting opportunities. Empowering the communities through these hunting conservancies allows for the local people to have an active hand in both the management and harvest of their wildlife. It encourages them to think and act in the name of conservation.
As a wildlife biologist, Kelli Poole has worked for several state agencies across the American West, often in bighorn sheep studies in Montana and Colorado. Currently she sits on the national board of directors for the Mule Deer Foundation and is the director of hunts and applications at Rolling Bones Adventures. This article is based on her two seasons with the Association of Nature Conservation Organizations of Tajikistan, training young women there in guiding techniques and wildlife classification.
Banner image: Wildlife guide trainees on a survey hike, looking for ibex and Marco Polo sheep. The shotgun is for protection against wolves. Author’s photo