Next time anyone tells you that hunters destroy the world’s rarest animals, remember you have a moral right to laugh in their face. Today, hunters save more iconic species than anyone else, and sustainable regulated hunting is the most efficient conservation tool known to humankind. There are numerous cases to prove it. Bukhara Markhor in Tajikistan is one.
Bukhara Markhor faced extinction only a few decades ago, but was saved due to hunters’ efforts.
Bukhara Markhor is a majestic animal with peculiar corkscrew-shaped horns that inhabits the most remote mountains of Central Asia. Hunting played a part in the decrease of its numbers, admittedly, but hunters were only tools of forces stronger than themselves. In mountain villages of Tajikistan, hunting was an old tradition passed from father to son. It used to be more of a lifestyle than a means of subsistence; hunters seldom harvested more than was needed for their families’ immediate needs. But Soviet influence ruined the old ways. It turned traditional hunters into professional game slaughterers, with harvest plans they had to meet or else. It’s not that the Communist government didn’t do anything to protect the environment, but their efforts somehow failed.
By 1991, the number of Markhor in Tajikistan was estimated as only 300 animals. Then things got worse.
In the first years of independence from the Soviet Union, a collapsed economy made people turn to wildlife for survival, and a violent civil war meant hundreds of armed people in the mountains. What would you do if you were hungry, had an AK, and saw a herd of wild sheep or goat – especially if you had no hunting experience? Let loose into the flock, get one animal perhaps and leave five or six cripples to die a miserable death. After the end of the war, Tajik wildlife faced another threat. Trophy hunting was officially banned, but unscrupulous outfitters took some unscrupulous hunters after Markhor, Marco Polo, Ibex and even endangered Snow Leopards! The worst thing about these hunts was the corruptive effect they had – illegal outfitters couldn’t invest in preservation, even if they would, and the Tajik were basically giving their nation’s invaluable assets away for peanuts!
Tajik hunters stood up to reclaim their mountains and their animals.
Everywhere and anywhere, it’s not a farmer or herder or a city dweller, it’s a hunter who first becomes concerned about nature. The scientists of Hunting & Conservation Alliance Tajikistan (H&CAT) say they didn’t even have to raise the topic of wildlife preservation when they came to remote mountain villages. Local hunters started the conversation with laments how there used to be flocks of mountain game, and now the animals are so shy and scattered there’s almost no use in hunting them. Then the researchers explained how well-being of the mountains was in the hunters’ hands. Wildlife is your garden, they said, you don’t reap fruit from young trees or cut them for firewood, you nurture them and let them reach maturity. Then your labors are rewarded with a big harvest.
In 2008, Hunting and Conservation Alliance of Tajikistan (H&CAT) began to work to implement a trophy-hunting based conservation model that had already proven its efficiency in Pakistan.
Village hunters were keen to grasp the essence of trophy hunting schemes all over the world – including the Torghar Conservation Program in Pakistan. The scheme is really simple: you sell a very limited number of mature animals to trophy hunters, and use the funds to protect the rest, as well as other species that live in the area. H&CAT helped local hunters to establish hunting preserves, which would give them legal right to protect them from poachers, collect data on populations, and request harvest quotas based on the animal numbers. And to organize legal, regulated hunting for tourists, too.
Tajik hunters worked hard for years, protecting their mountains from poachers and monitoring wildlife, before they saw a cent of trophy hunters’ money.
The only support they had was in the form of equipment such as trail cams and scouting scopes they received from environmental protection groups, most notably GIZ and Panthera (who are mostly concerned about Snow Leopard, but recognized that more mountain ungulates means more food for the cats). There were a number of small grants, but they couldn’t even cover organization costs. H&CAT says, in retrospect, it was even good that there was no money to pay hunters for anti-poaching raids and monitoring. It proved a good way to filter out irresponsible profiteers, and work only with long-term thinkers and true enthusiasts of Tajikistan’s mountain game.
Due to the hunters’ efforts, now the number of Markhor has grown to almost 2000 animals, and strictly limited hunting is possible.
There are only 6 to 9 Bukhara Markhor permits issued each year. This amount can’t possibly hurt a population that, according to recent independent counts, numbers 1900+ animals. And for those concerned about the quality of gene pool, the very old males typically harvested by trophy hunters are usually well past reproductive age and have already passed on their genetics. The positive effects of sustainable use trophy hunting are far greater, because overall numbers of Markhor killed by humans decrease dramatically. Each preserve employs up to ten full-time game rangers and guides for continuous protection against poaching. Some of these rangers are recruited from former poachers, which automatically decreases their numbers. Finally, with income from trophy hunting improving local economies, there are fewer reasons for the villagers to kill wild animals, and more reasons to protect them.
Trophy hunters pay over $100,000 for a Markhor hunt; 60% of that is channeled to wildlife protection, and 40% goes towards improving the lives of local communities.
In a country where $70 is a good monthly income, this money can do a lot. Each additional steady job with a median salary makes a big difference for a remote mountain village. In addition, trophy hunters’ money go towards improving roads and water supplies, paying for additional school teachers and helping local kids get college education. H&CAT even donates domestic sheep for festivals and weddings – so that there’s no need to kill wild animals for the feast. And when the villagers see the income from trophy hunting improve their living standards, they no longer view wildlife as “useless wild creatures”. It becomes the proverbial goose that lays golden eggs.
Trophy hunters’ money + local hunters’ effort = abundant, healthy herds.
The H&CAT project is not some kind of common vision of a fat white man exploiting poor savages. The Tajik who run H&CAT program are hunters, and it’s their hunting grounds, where they legally hunt the more abundant animals for themselves. The success of H&CAT program depends entirely on the fact that at every stage it is performed by the hunting fraternity, from trophy hunters who are willing to pay for their passion, to traditional hunters who are out in the mountains every day to oversee and protect their land. Their protection and care does not only benefit Markhor, but spreads out to other game and non-game animals, including Wild Boar, Ibex, Urial, Marco Polo Sheep, and even Snow Leopard.
H&CAT’s success was recognized by the prestigious Markhor Award in 2014, and IUCN membership in 2017.
Even environmental protection groups such as Panthera – who are usually opposed to trophy hunting – recognize the value of H&CAT work and support them. Their official position is: Tajikistan as a nation is too poor, and its territory is too remote and too close to the battlefields of Afghanistan to attract enough wildlife viewers. So trophy hunting is the only way to raise sufficient funds to protect Tajik wildlife. In other words,
Sustainable hunting is the most efficient conservation tool known today.
Next time anyone tells you hunting is bad, ask them what they think is more important:
- their personal arbitrary ethical standards, or
- the well-being of our planet and its wildlife?
If the answer is “2” – then, sorry guys, you’ll have to support or at least tolerate regulated legal hunting. Somewhere in the future humankind might come up with something that works better, but the Earth’s precious wildlife needs saving right now, and there simply isn’t a more efficient and successful scheme.
For a hunt that doesn’t only give you unforgettable experience, but also supports local communities, explore H&CAT’s BookYourHunt page.