Not Africa, I know, but I think this piece shows important lessons about integrated conservation that are applicable to Africa. KS
California Academy of Sciences
To blame for the species’ dwindling numbers were all the usual suspects: habitat loss, competition with grazing livestock, and diseases transmitted by domestic animals. Most of all, however, the markhor suffered from decades of unrelenting pressure from poaching—illegal hunting for meat by locals, along with the occasional illicit trophy hunt.
Those declines are finally in reverse. Between 1994 and 2015, the species was classified as “endangered” in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, but then, two years ago, it graduated to “near threatened.” Markhors are not out of the woods yet, but things are starting to look up.
“It’s probably the most expensive hunt in the world,” Campbell says. “This is basically where my income goes.”
Trophy hunting is often portrayed as the worst sort of human entitlement, a way for extremely privileged white men—and, indeed, they typically are all three—to assert their dominance. Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, has called the practice “cruel, self-aggrandizing, larcenous, and shameful.” Jimmy Kimmel called it “vomitous” in a televised monologue in 2015.
But as I traveled along the same roads several months after Campbell’s journey, I learned that wealthy hunters like him are the main reason that Bukharan markhor still exist at all—despite how uncomfortable that truth may be. In specific cases—as even some conservation groups attest—trophy hunting can be an invaluable tool for protecting species and the ecosystems they rely upon.
Some hunters, of course, are almost certainly engaged in a vainglorious pursuit of power—and lack the self-awareness to realize it. But after spending time with dozens of Tajik hunting guides and wildlife biologists (some of whom were both) on two markhor hunting concessions in southern Tajikistan, I discovered that painting the entire hunting community with such a broad brush ignores a reality: the trophy hunters who attempt to engage honestly with the thorny ethical quandaries underlying their pastime, who go out of their way to have their fun in an ecologically and socially responsible manner.
As his fortune grew, Campbell turned his attention toward more exotic, expensive, difficult hunts in far-flung locales like Nepal, Zimbabwe, and Tajikistan.
In the contracts he signs with hunting preserves, he usually insists that he be the only hunter present. Sometimes the law already ensures this: Tajikistan’s 74-square-kilometer (29-square-mile) Saidi Tagnob concession (the name means “downhill hunt”), Campbell’s destination last December, was granted only one markhor hunting license for all of 2016.
“At one point, it narrows down and goes through this remarkable rock formation called ‘the vagina.’ It’s what the locals call it. It’s this narrow slot maybe five or ten feet wide that the whole river goes rushing through, so at that point it’s quite deep. It’s quite exciting to be jumping from rock to rock in this.” In his younger days, Campbell was a skilled mountaineer. The high point in his life, he says, was summiting Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. This sort of adventure is his true passion.
A little farther upstream, Campbell and his team came across a group of locals digging along the riverbanks with small shovels. He suspects they were searching for gold; the nation produces some 1.5 tons of the precious metal each year. “If it weren’t for this hunting conservancy,” Campbell mused, “I think the chances are extremely good that some company would have a gold mine there, and it would be an ecological disaster.”
By allowing for the sale of trophy hunting expeditions, the argument goes, privately held lands can be managed for the benefit of wildlife. The alternatives seem objectively worse: mining, ranching, agriculture. Isn’t it better to sacrifice a few old animals in order to maintain an entire functioning ecosystem?
Markhor poaching is different from the sort that afflicts rhinos and elephants. The prize isn’t a horn or tusk that winds its way to the Far East to be bought and sold for use in a traditional healing practice or as a conspicuous display of vanity. When a markhor gets poached, it is typically at the hands of a poor Tajik villager, who is just looking for a decent meal for himself and his family. While some markhor are indeed killed as the result of illegal trophy hunting, most simply wind up on local dinner tables.
To be effective, legal trophy hunting must therefore benefit not just the animals themselves but also the human communities that live alongside them.
It was about then that the international big-cat conservation group Panthera began its own work in Tajikistan.
“Panthera has a complicated view of trophy hunting,” says Tanya Rosen, director of Panthera’s programs to protect snow leopards (Panthera uncia) in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. “When it comes to trophy hunting of big cats, we’re not supportive. But in the case of the prey of big cats, it is slightly different.” Predators need prey. If trophy hunting can boost a struggling population of prey animals, then it brings an indirect benefit to the cats. It wasn’t long before Panthera became involved in the markhor project as well, by providing logistical support to the communities, including binoculars, spotting scopes, and vehicles, by training community members on wildlife monitoring techniques, and by aiding the communities in their interactions with the Tajik government, the IUCN, and various international hunting organizations.
At that time, hunting of any kind was illegal in Tajikistan. Some countries, such as Zimbabwe and Costa Rica, have bans on hunting for sport, or partial bans for certain species, like Zambia’s ban on lion and leopard hunting. A wholesale ban on all forms of hunting is rare, but not unheard of. Earlier this year, Kyrgyzstan’s Parliament narrowly rejected a proposed ban on all hunting activities through 2030, with only small exceptions made for lethal predator control.
In 2004, the handful of communities living alongside the markhor began the hard work of bringing an end to their traditional poaching culture, and of preserving 560,000 hectares (more than 2,100 square miles, an area almost twice the size of Rhode Island) of prime markhor habitat on the promise that they would one day benefit from trophy hunting. “For several years, it was all about protection and conservation,” says Rosen. Everyone worked on a volunteer basis. Even the rangers went unpaid.
The first legal trophy hunts would not occur until 2014—a decade later.
Hunting revenue is used to pay 10 rangers—each of them former poachers—a full-time salary. Markhor money also goes toward buying books and uniforms for schoolchildren, and paying teachers’ salaries.
After lunch, we strolled through Anjirob until we came to a clearing. Looking out across the valley towards Afghanistan, Abdulkhaev pointed out what appeared to be a black cable strung across dozens of wood posts. It’s a new 3-kilometer-long water pipe that brings clean water directly to the village. He smiled, flashing his gold teeth, and told me that work was underway on an even longer pipe, close to 15 kilometers long, that will bring fresh water directly to the schoolhouse. All of it was paid for with revenue from trophy-hunting fees.
It’s hard to determine how much of what Mamadnazarbekov described is true. Several sources told me that some money must also be spent making various payoffs that aren’t legally justifiable, and that the government doesn’t necessarily spend its share of the revenue as they are supposed to. In a country with a per capita GDP of just 804 U.S. dollars, it’s not hard to imagine why many people here would want a piece of the action. Bribery and corruption may simply be part of the cost of doing business, even when that business is wildlife conservation.
Some 60 kilometers away from Anjirob sits a village called Zighar, home to a 70-year-old man named Davlatkhon Mulloyorov. Together with two of his four sons, Ayub and Khodudod, Mulloyorov oversees the country’s largest markhor hunting concession, an area of some 150 square kilometers (58 square miles), two-thirds larger than Manhattan. His operation, called M-Sayod, won three of the country’s nine markhor hunting licenses granted in 2016, all of which were sold to foreign trophy hunters: two Americans and one German. (In total, the nine permits went to seven Americans, one German, and one Russian.)
Despite its benefits, this conservation strategy still strikes many as unpalatable, or worse. The potential for corruption, when so much money is changing hands inside such a poor country, raises legitimate concern. But it’s difficult to argue with the results, at least so far. More than 10 years of intense effort have allowed the markhor population in Southern Tajikistan to flourish.
Still, why not simply establish a national park to protect Tajikistan’s unique faunal heritage? The main reason is that formal legal protection over a landscape only works when there are sufficient resources available to monitor and protect wildlife. That’s a tough proposition for a nation as poor as Tajikistan. And when park designations are imposed from the top down, without the buy-in of local communities, they’re rarely effective. Hunting bans instituted in this way can even lead disempowered communities to intensify their poaching efforts, rather than to reduce them. As people perceive diminished opportunities to care for the nutritional needs of their families, conflict with the government increases. Communities exert even greater control over a landscape to which they feel entitled, and over its natural resources.
By allowing hunters to shoot three markhor last year, Mulloyorov said he’s been able to protect the nearly 550 that live on his concession, plus the 10 snow leopards, while simultaneously making daily life easier for the people who live alongside them. This is the Faustian bargain of modern trophy hunting. “If 30 years ago there was an opportunity for [hunting] Persian leopards and tigers,” he said, “we would still have leopards and tigers.” This rationale applies not just to the markhor; in 2016, Tajikistan also offered permits for up 85 of its population of near-threatened Marco Polo sheep—a sub-species of argali with especially large horns—as well as for Siberian ibex, another more plentiful, wide-ranging type of mountain goat that has been hit hard by illegal poaching.
On the second evening, the party reached a small sod dugout, a sort of log cabin built into a ditch that had also been provisioned with a small wood stove. This would be their home base for the remainder of the expedition. “You go out every day and get up high and ‘glass’ with binoculars and spotting scopes, looking for animals,” Campbell says. “We saw some 150 markhor, including females and very young ones. When you’re trophy hunting you’re looking for a very old male.”
For Campbell, it took only two more days to find what he was seeking. After settling on a suitable target, he fired off a shot, and missed. Later, he spotted another prize, an older male grazing alone—which indicated the animal had been kicked out of his herd and was no longer part of the breeding pool. Campbell took his second shot, from 343 yards. “It was a beautiful animal in a beautiful setting,” he says of the approximately nine-year-old male. “It was the most exciting hunt of my life.”
Isaac’s take is somewhat more thoughtful than Campbell’s. “You’re faced with sadness and joy,” he explains. “Joy that you achieved what you did, but there’s a sadness associated with it. It’s a very emotional time when you look at an animal you’ve just killed,” he says.
For better or worse, conservation often comes down to cold, hard cash, which is why a common refrain is that shooting animals with cameras is a preferable alternative to shooting them with bullets. Even photographic tourists spend a considerable amount of money while on vacation—and it’s the gift that keeps giving.
But with prime markhor habitat along Tajikistan’s southern border sitting literally rock-throwing distance from Afghanistan, this is not a place most tourists are willing to take their holidays—despite the stunning landscapes and the friendly, welcoming people. The terrain is difficult, the weather is extreme, and the air is thin. Traditional tourism infrastructure is non-existent. There isn’t a fancy hotel or lodge in sight, to say nothing of indoor plumbing or, in some areas, electricity. To find a restaurant means driving at least a few hours and, in the winter, risking getting caught in an avalanche. Wealthy hunters just might be the best hope for the survival of these imperiled wild animals, given the harsh realities of life in these parts.
Campbell knows Palmer socially. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Walt spends $250,000 to $500,000 a year hunting. And the people who are lynching him donate 25 bucks to the Sierra Club. Who’s done more for conservation? There’s no comparison.”
But it’s not only about economics for the rural Tajik communities. Modern trophy hunting is also seen as a means of encouraging a return to an older, more sustainable relationship between people and wildlife.
“During older times, hunting supported an entire village,” Munavvar Alidodov, a Panthera field biologist and also a member of Tajikistan’s Yoquti Darshay ibex hunting conservancy, told me. “There were rigid rules: Do not shoot a pregnant female; do not shoot during the rut; only target older males.” But when modern weapons were introduced, he explained, suddenly anybody—not just a skilled hunter—could easily kill a large, wild animal. The old cultural guidelines were quickly forgotten. “These community-based organizations are trying to recreate traditional hunting ethics,” he said. They are simply taking advantage of a somewhat more modern tool—affluent foreigners—to do so.
Campbell is busy planning his next community-based trophy hunt in Tajikistan. He’s eyeing the Marco Polo sheep, a hunt he’ll attempt on the even tougher, higher, and more remote Pamir Plateau. “I feel good about it in my heart because I feel like I’m promoting really effective conservation.” He’ll spend around $40,000 to add the sheep to his collection.
Header image of snow leopard captured by camera trap by Sebastian Kennerknecht
Tajik rangers with spotting scope and binoculars by Joel Caldwell
Small herd of Siberian ibex spotted from afar by Joel Caldwell
Lone markhor camouflaged against rocky habitat by Eric Dragesco
Male snow leopard peering over snow bank by Sebastian Kennerknecht
Footer image of the Uchkul River Valley, eastern Kyrgyzstan by Sebastian Kennerknecht