To the Roots of Mountain Hunting: Americans in the mountains of Tajikistan

“I was afraid of the cold” – says Don Holt – “this being a high-elevation hunt in the dead of winter. So I packed a -15 rated sleeping bag. And on most nights I got so hot in it, I had to get half of my body out. The Tajik have a very efficient way of heating their homes, with coals burning on little metal pans. By midnight it would get a bit chilly, but a guide would walk in quietly, stir the coals, and very quickly the little hut got warm again!”

It may not be easy for an American hunter to warm up to the idea of going to a distant, strange land with solemn reputation for a community-based hunt. In the Land of the Free there is such an abundance and variety of animals, with the added benefit of good service, comfortable envelope of familiar culture, and freedom from environmental concerns, knowing that under the North American Conservation Model all hunting benefits nature.

Here is the story how five American hunters, some of whom had never hunted out of the country and in fact had never been on a high altitude mountain hunt before, went on an Ibex hunt with Hunting & Conservation Alliance Tajikistan, and discovered abundance of beautiful animals, preserved in their native habitat by a community-based conservation effort, hunting camaraderie that transcends cultural differences, and an ancient hunting tradition built around spiritual connection between hunter and prey.

 

tajikistan
Photo by Don Holt

Now, Hunting & Conservation Alliance Tajikistan (H&CAT) is not your typical sheep and goat outfitter. You have probably read a lot of stories how funds from trophy hunting help improve lives of local communities, which encourages them to place more value on wild animals and participate in their preservation. H&CAT takes this principle one step further – it is the local communities themselves that run the hunting concessions, offering hunts for a variety of Tajikistan mountain game, including Marco Polo and Urial Sheep, Brown Bear, Wild Boar, Bukharan Markhor – and, of course Ibex, the most numerous animal and the most affordable trophy of the Capra and Ovis family. Not unlike some operations by North American First Nations, but a novel concept for Middle Asia.

Don: “I had these concerns about going on a community based hunt – like, what if I land at the airport, and nobody shows up? How do I find these people if I don’t even speak their language? But everything turned out fine. Mustapha and other people from H&CAT met us at the airport before passport and customs, took our papers and handled the paperwork for us.”

Say Ellen and Hal Holmes: “We were given the VIP treatment by H & CAT personnel. They took our passports, luggage and gun claim tags, and 15 minutes later returned with our passports, luggage and guns and we were on the way to our hunting area. Well worth the little extra money it costs.

We loaded everything up in a four wheel drive Toyota SUV and headed for the scenic Pamir highway, along with our translator. Scenery in route was absolutely beautiful with steep, snow covered mountains and the highway that paralleled the river.  We slept off and on for the 12 hour drive to our final destination in the Rushon district of Tajikistan.  The driver was very safety conscious and the translator made it very clear to us that if we wanted to slow down  just to let him know and it would happen but we never felt the need.  Roads were very good in some places and very rough in other areas but our vehicle had good tires and seat belts and we felt very safe.

We had been concerned about Islamic heritage of the country, and that we looked the area up on the map and Afghanistan was right near. We wondered how the locals would take to a lady going hunting? But all these worries were groundless. We met families of guides and wardens, enjoyed the camaraderie, everyone was very friendly and treated us like royalty.”

hunting guides
Photo by Frank Zitz

Don: “The people were very pleased to see us there. They absolutely welcome Western hunters, and you can tell the hunt is really contributing to their community”

Ironically, members of H&CAT were no less worried before the hunting season of 2017. Previously H&CAT welcomed mostly, if we can use the expression, die-hard mountain hunters. The kind that will spare no expense and withstand every hardship, sleeping on the edge of a glacier and living on granola bars, to complete a Grand Slam. These hunters were the first to come to H&CAT operation, and the lure of Bukharan Markhor, the species that couldn’t be legally hunted for trophies on the memory of any living person was enough for them to ignore any possible inconvenience. But as H&CAT began to market their hunts to a broader audience, the community became concerned how “just hunters” would take it?

Don: “I have to really dig deep to find a fault with this operation. Maybe the very little things – like, when I asked for eggs for breakfast, I expected them to bring two, but they brought eight! I can’t possibly eat eight eggs fried in deep fat!  The arrangement was very flexible. I wanted to get two Ibex permits from the start. But Said suggested I buy one, and if my hunt is successful, and I want and have an opportunity to hunt one more Ibex, then I had an option to buy another permit there and then. That shows how they care for the client’s best interests.

totheroots_hunter
Photo by Dan Holt

Communication was not easy, with translator, but adequate. The guides are excellent, very professional, with spotting-scope-sharp eyes, at least the guides I hunted with. They were very good at estimating the size of Ibex we saw.”

Ellen and Hal: “It was clear that the hunt was benefiting the local community. Guides were very interested, and it was a team effort, the rangers and the guides were working together”

Don: “This is a high elevation hunt, so it’s going to be physically challenging. I did, on the average, three stalks per day, about a mile long give or take.  This is tough if you’re not prepared. Take medication that helps to adjust to high altitudes, and train. I do a lot of core exercises for  back, spine and legs, work on treadmill and elliptical machines, and use a special face mask that imitates low oxygen conditions. But of course nothing beats simple walking up and down the hills.”

Ellen and Hal: “We were at an elevation of approximately 12,000 ft., but had no acclimation issues, as we had followed H & CAT recommendations and had taken Dimox as prescribed.

There was very little snow this year and while the ibex were plentiful in the area, they were staying very high up on the mountains, away from the  wolves that had already killed several.  Most were in the range of 600 to 1000 yards, and at 60 – 70 degree angles.”

ibex trophy
Photo by Don Holt

 

Don: “You have to be prepared for some long range shooting. The ibex habitat is wide open places. I can’t see how you can possibly stalk them closer than 300 yards there. You have to be prepared to make 300-400 yard shots at least, and probably even 500 and up.

This is a real fair chase hunt, even though there are lots of Ibex. I missed two Ibex, at 500 and at 350 yards, due to a problem with a scope, had two more stalks where I was almost in range but didn’t get to shoot, and was fortunate to harvest two beautiful Ibex, so it makes six close encounters with Ibex during my time there. Shows you how many real good trophy males there are.”

Hal: “I was having trouble controlling my tremors (due to Parkinson’s), but my wife was able to take a nice one that measured just under 1 meter!”

All in all, five American hunters who went Ibex hunting with Hunting & Conservation Alliance Tajikistan in 2017 brought home five great Ibex trophies, and that didn’t even begin to dent the local mountain ungulate populations. The money they spent, in fact, contributed to further increase in wildlife numbers.

ibex
Photo by Frank Zitz

Ellen and Hal: “We would typically see anywhere from 40 to 100 Ibex a day. They told us that the local Ibex population had been decimated due to poaching, and had gotten down to around a total of 40 in the area… but have made a strong comeback due to H&CAT efforts and they are now plentiful and in very sustainable numbers.  They identify hunting as a crucial tool for conservation and as an integral and legitimate component of nature conservation projects.”

Don: “There were many Ibex there, and what I saw was a very healthy herd. Lots of great trophies await the new hunters. The herd is definitely not overhunted. H&CAT doesn’t kill more than 1% of the Markhor population, and no more than 4% of Ibex, so the animals are getting bigger and bigger. My friends got Ibex that were 42-43″, and 41-42”. Through spotting scopes we saw Ibex that were well in the 50” range.

That’s a big difference from some other Mid-Asian countries, where, I feel, outfitters take all hunters to just one camp and shoot out the herd pretty much. As a taxidermist, I see Ibex trophies from just about all over the word, and if you want an Ibex that’s well in the 40″ range, or 50+, you should definitely go to Tajikistan.

I also saw many Marco Polo rams on the territory we hunted, and they were fantastic trophies. In addition, I got two of my stalks ruined by wolves. We were glassing from a high ridge downwards, and saw a good Ibex down below. As we started to stalk, a wolf appeared and chased the Ibex away. We followed the animal, but it was wary after the experience and wouldn’t let us come any close.

totheroots_anothertrophyOn another occasion, we saw an Ibex some 650 yards away, and as we were admiring it through the spotting glass, two wolves showed up and started to stalk the Ibex. I could see the hunt in every detail, and it was amazing. I have to admit feeling a little jealous and frustrated, but at the same time privileged to witness such an intimate scene from natural life. I’m happy to say the Ibex outmaneuvered the wolves and managed to escape on both occasions. It goes to show, however, how diverse and rich the wildlife of the H&CAT hunting areas is!”

If abundance of both apex predators and prey isn’t the sign of a healthy ecosystem, than what is? No wonder that the environmental merits of H&CAT’s program have seen much praise recently, from both hunting and non-hunting conservation bodies, culminating in Peter Hathaway Capstick Hunting Heritage Award for the program’s founder, Khalil Karimov.  But the Tajik hunters’ motivation to offer their hunts to visitors goes far beyond a simple marketing strategy.

Though some people may find it difficult to understand, for Tajik mountain people hunting has never been simply exploitation of a natural resource, but has always been accompanied by a deep connection with the animals and caring for them. Equally hard to grasp, but no less real, is the fact that hunters from the local communities of Tajikistan will find it easy to understand a mountain hunter from another continent, too.

In the mountains of Tajikistan hunting is an old tradition passed from father to son over countless generations. Ibex have a special spiritual significance for this tradition. Hunting Ibex went far beyond filling the larder. Hunters had to purify themselves by prayer and wash off their sins before entering mountains in pursuit of the animal, and horns of the slain Ibex were to be placed into special holy places or shrines, as a token of gratitude and to symbolize the spiritual connection between the hunter and the prey.

totheroots_monument
Photo by Don Holt

Are the trophy rooms of modern Western mountain hunters somehow related to the Ibex shrines of Tajik mountains? Is their reverence to horns and antlers a distant memory of ancient rituals that were perhaps shared by all humankind before we divided into nations? Who knows… One thing is for certain, however – in spite of different backgrounds, Western visitors and people from the local communities can share experiences and traditions.

Don: “There was one 75-year-old man there who they said had killed over 500 heads of mountain game in his lifetime, with an ancient single shot military rifle, to feed the community. Now he’s a guide and he goes with younger hunters any day and never misses a beat.

When I killed my first Ibex he performed some sort of a ritual for me. He took a boiled Ibex knuckle bone, put it at my feet, painted my face with Ibex blood, and chanted a prayer. That, as far as I understood, had me somehow spiritually connected with Ibex. If I got it right, I have to kill five Ibex and Ibex will be forever embedded in me. I’m not sure what that means, but I feel they already are – after all, that was my fifth Ibex, counting the ones from Mongolia and Spain.

I’m definitely coming back next year for the Marco Polo Sheep…”

CONTINUE TO PART II OF THE STORY, TOLD BY FRANK ZITZ


Read more about H&CAT and their conservation effort in our blog stories “How Hunters Saved Bukhara Markhor in Tajikistan” and “The future of wildlife in the hands of local communities“. For another story of hunting mountain game in Tajikistan, see A Marco Polo Hunt” by John Baker, and you might also like The Watcher” by James Reed.


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