It’s 5 p.m., and the sun’s last rays cast a golden glow on an empty road in the eastern Pamirs of Tajikistan. This route was once the Silk Road plied by merchants, nomads, and pilgrims and later by British and Russian soldiers and agents engaged in the territorial contest between Britain and Russia over this remote region known as the Great Game.
Near Alichur, a small village in the eastern Pamirs, a thin silhouette appears on the horizon, and then two more, and that of a donkey.
One of the figures is Paul Salopek, the journalist who is walking to retrace the migrations of our ancestors out of Africa and across the world to the southern tip of South America—and giving voice, in the here and now, to people all along his path.
People like Urmat, Abdukadir, Mahan, Munavvar. Once hunters and poachers of wildlife, including the famed Marco Polo sheep, these men have become their best protectors. Their work involves daily patrols looking for poachers, monitoring camera traps placed to record the presence of poachers, and seeding the ground with nails to hobble poachers’ vehicles and motorcycles.
As it happens, valleys once emptied of wildlife are now dotted with Marco Polo sheep and ibexes, and on a cold day in February you can hear the yowling of snow leopards mating. As their prey is rebounding, so are the elusive cats.
For the past six years, Panthera has worked in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to reduce the threats to snow leopards. We have helped establish the Hunting and Conservation Alliance as the umbrella for the development of community-based conservancies.
My role as head of Panthera’s Snow Leopard Program in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan is multifaceted—everything from negotiating with governments on behalf of the conservancies and on behalf of governments at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora and the Convention on Migratory Species, to fixing the door of a corral and positioning a camera trap. And, of course, writing proposals for grants to fund our efforts.
Our main goals are: to stabilize populations of snow leopard prey animals (Marco Polo sheep, ibexes, and markhor); reduce human-snow leopard conflict, mainly through predator-proofing of corrals; establish informant networks on illegal wildlife trade among local people in the conservancies; support border and customs authorities, including by training wildlife detection dogs.
To assess the impact of our actions, we use ungulate population surveys and camera trap surveys.
We have only best estimates for how many snow leopards there are in Tajikistan (280) and Kyrgyzstan (300) and no baseline data to relate these numbers to. But we’ve seen their numbers increase in the conservancies we support in Tajikistan—from just one in Alichur in 2013 to six in 2016; from six in the Darvaz range in 2013 to 10 in 2016; and from 19 in 2012 in Jarty Gumbez to 24 in 2016.
Paul Salopek’s mantra: “If we choose to slow down and observe carefully, we can rediscover our world.” It applies to conservation just as well as to journalism.
Paul chooses to slow down to grasp the complexities of the world and its people. We slow down because that’s the nature of conservation if done right: It takes time to develop trust and build relationships.
The camera traps that recorded the six snow leopards near Alichur last year were manned by community rangers with support from Panthera biologists. Camera trap images of fluffy and cuddly snow leopards are the most visible—and gratifyingly quick— reward for years of effort.
Conservation in the Pamirs of Tajikistan is about involving the local people, and it’s about working out compromises. In remote places like Alichur, where poverty is widespread and children are undernourished and sometimes don’t survive to adulthood, poaching for food has been a necessity.
But now thanks to the former poachers who have come together here to form a community-based conservancy, as well as hundreds of other former poachers who have established similar conservancies across Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, illegal hunting has almost been eliminated from the areas they manage and patrol. Marco Polo sheep and ibex have multiplied, and with them, snow leopards.
Part of the motivation is the prospect of income from trophy hunts—money that can alleviate poverty by means of investments in community improvements, from building water wells to buying hospital and school equipment.
Legal and sustainable hunting of a few Marco Polo sheep a year to achieve this result is preferable to the loss of hundreds of the animals to unchecked poaching.
I personally don’t like trophy hunting. But I don’t have to worry about what my daughter will have for dinner or whether she’ll make it through the winter. Unfortunately revenue from ecotourism in this remote part of the world is no match yet for that from trophy hunting.
We hope ecotourism will contribute more. That’s why earlier this year, we spearheaded the Tajik Women & Conservation Initiative, in partnership with the Hunting and Conservation Alliance. We want to empower women in the conservancies by training them as wildlife guides and rangers in the hope that their availability will make the idea of wildlife-watching excursions in the region more appealing to female tourists.
Also in 2017, we began another initiative, the “Tajik Kittens” (Empowering Children Through Snow Leopard Conservation). The aim is to instill a love of nature and wildlife observation in children in the eastern Pamirs who have traditionally seen Marco Polo sheep at most as food, and snow leopards as only a threat to their families’ livestock.
Meanwhile, the nearly 150 predator-proof corrals built in Tajikistan have helped change attitudes by zeroing incidents of snow leopard killings of sheep and goats across most of the Pamirs—and zeroing retaliatory killings of snow leopards by herders in the Pamirs.
My six years living in beautiful Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have taught me that you can’t save the snow leopards and the Marco Polo sheep unless you respect the people who live with them. And that begins with giving them voice.
Thank you, Paul Salopek, for walking through these forgotten and misunderstood lands and doing just that.