National Geographic focus on the Pamirs: The future of wildlife is in our hands

The future of wildlife is in our hands: the future of snow leopards is in the hands of local communities
By Tatjana Rosen January 14, 2016

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.

National Geographic focus on the Pamirs: The future of wildlife is in our hands

Mahan and “Burgut”

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.

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.

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.

The future

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.


AKDN’s pioneering work in Tajikistan

The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) works towards the vision of an economically dynamic, politically stable, intellectually vibrant and culturally tolerant Tajikistan.  AKDN supports the establishment of programmes and institutions that allow the Government, private sector and civil society to play complementary roles in increasing prosperity and creativity within a pluralistic society.

The Network brings together individual agencies that operate in a range of areas  –from economic development to education, rural development to cultural revitalization, health care to financial services. Together these agencies collaborate towards a common goal – to build institutions and programmes that can respond to the contemporary challenges and opportunities of social, economic and cultural growth in Tajikistan.

Research, Insight & Perspective by A. Maherali

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