Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Tajiks Dispute Benefits of Hunting

Scientists warn that many species are under threat, as local communities have no stake in face extinction as a result of poorly regulated hunts and poachers.
By Nafisa Pisarejeva
Ecologists in Tajikistan are warning that some wild animal species are under threat because local communities do not benefit from legal hunting and are forced by poverty to engage in poaching.

Scientists presented a set of grim findings to a meeting on biodiversity and the effects of hunting, held in the Tajik capital Dushanbe in early March The meeting was organised jointly by Volunteers for Nature Preservation, a local non-government group, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Snow Leopard Trust, which lobbies on behalf of this highly endangered big cat.

Tajikistan is an important country in terms of wildlife diversity, with over 90 per cent of its territory covered by great mountain ranges where some peaks tower over 7,000 metres. The diversity of the natural environment has allowed many rare species to survive here.

Tajik scientists warn that many species have declined both in range and numbers in recent decades. At least 160 animal species are now under threat, in a country where tigers and local species of marmot and sturgeon have disappeared within the last 50 years.

This year brought another blow - an abnormally cold and long winter that froze rivers and open stretches of water, killing rare cormorants, ducks, otters and jungle cats in national parks.

Given the deteriorating habitat, scientists are voicing concern about the devastating effects of poaching, and complain that local communities have been given no stake in wildlife survival as they see none of the income the country earns from authorised hunting.

Some fear the scale of commercial hunting is far larger than the authorities admit.

Although the hunting industry is in theory subject to tight government controls, one Tajik environmentalist complained that no one even knew its true scale, because wealthy foreigners simply bribed officials in charge of nature conservation, and as a result, accurate records of the number of animals killed were not kept.

“Often it’s the institutions that are supposed to be responsible for preservation that are breaking the law or turning a blind eye by taking bribes from local and foreign hunters,” the ecologist told IWPR.

Tajikistan began allowing foreigners to go on big game hunts in the late Eighties, and the sport became more popular following independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Hunting is regulated by law and licensed by the State Committee for Preservation of Environment and Agriculture.

The revenue from the sale of hunting licenses is supposed to go to the government, which should then set aside ten per cent for the national nature fund and another 40 per cent for community development. The remaining 50 per cent of is supposed to pay for the upkeep of reserves and national parks, on wages, vehicles and equipment for the wardens, and on warding off both poachers and wolves, which are regarded as their four-legged equivalent.

The license income represents the sole funding source for nature conservation in the main hunting areas, such as the Murghab district of Badakhshan region.

Badakhshan, a remote, high-altitude region in the southeast bordering on China and Afghanistan, now has several large hunting firms in operation.

The area is home to the Pamir argali, also known as the Marco Polo sheep, which have been on the endangered list since the late 1980s. Hunters have long considered these sheep, with their superb curling horns, one of the top trophy animals.

Rustam Muratov, from the nature management department of the Ministry of Agriculture, says managed hunting helped preserve the Marco Polo sheep during the Nineties, when the country was ravaged by civil war. In recent years, the population has risen to 14,000, from 10,000 in the late Eighties.

The authorities allow a limited shoot that varies from year to year; last season it was 45.

Alikhon Latifi, the Tajikistan coordinator for the Bonn Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, agrees that managed hunting helps wildlife stocks.

Commercial companies work to preserve animals, because they have a interest in their survival, whereas the government’s conservation bodies are not effective because they are starved of funds, personnel, vehicles and fuel, he said.

According to Latifi, if areas inhabited by other endangered animals like the markhor wild goat, the Bukhara deer, the urial – another sheep species – were made available for private hunting tours, their future would look a lot brighter than it does now.

Not everyone takes such a benign view of private game hunting.

One independent expert from Dushanbe told IWPR that hunting – at least in the form in which it currently exists in Tajikistan - benefited only hunting firms. He said local communities in the areas where hunting was allowed gained little or no income from the sport.

“The revenues from the international hunts are transferred to special accounts but no one knows how these funds are spent,” he maintained.

While wardens, hunters and scientists argue over the merits of managed hunting, there is no doubt that poaching is continuing to wreak havoc with such endangered species as the snow leopard, now down to about 4,500 animals worldwide, of which perhaps 200 live in Tajikistan.

According to official statistics, poachers destroy around ten snow leopards, between 100 and 180 Siberian ibexes, 200 to 240 Tian Shan brown bears and 30 to 40 markhors.

Latifi said the official poaching figures were a gross underestimate. He cited surveys compiled by local residents and the staff of hunting firms in the Murghab region, which indicated that poachers killed up to 1,000 argali a year.

He also pointed the finger at the Tajik border guards who patrol the wildlife-rich mountain frontier with China and Afghanistan. “Everybody knows ordinary people are not allowed across the [buffer-zone] line, which is why we blame the border guards,” he said.

Ibrahim Bobokalonov, from the government inspectorate for flora and fauna, said poachers faced disciplinary actions and fines.

But most ecologists say that even when fines are imposed, they are insignificant when compared with the damage done and the money that poachers can earn.

Whether much can do be done to stop the poachers remains to be seen, however.

Bobokalonov is pessimistic, predicting that illegal hunting will remain widespread in mountain regions for the foreseeable future. Local communities are so poor that few people would pass up an opportunity to sell a high-value trophy or even just to get some free meat.

Nafisa Pisarejeva is an IWPR contributor in Tajikistan.