“To protect a rare Central Asian goat—and the snow leopards that depend on it—conservationists are turning to an unlikely ally: trophy hunters,” writes wildlife reporter Jason G Goldman
Goldman is tracing the footsteps of avid trophy hunter Bill Campbell, a doctor with his own private psychiatry practice. Several months before, Campbell had made the 5,000 mile journey from the US to the ‘rooftop of the world’, the remote Pamir mountains of Tadjikistan with the single purpose of adding a rare markhor goat to his extensive trophy collection. He paid $120,000 for the privilege of shooting it.
“It’s probably the most expensive hunt in the world,” Campbell says. “This is basically where my income goes.”
This is what a markhor looks like (alive) with its characteristic twisted horns, and this is where they live.
By the early 90s in spite of their nigh-on inaccessible habitat, markhor were close to extinction, the inevitable result of local poaching for meat and a certain amount of illegal trophy hunting. In 1994, in stepped the IUCN, placing the goats on the Red List of species that are Critically Endangered. Over the following decade numbers rose sufficiently for the species to move up a level (or down, whichever way you look at it) to Near Threatened.
Goldman asserts that during his trip to Tadjikistan, “I learned that wealthy hunters like Campbell are the main reason that Bukharan markhor still exist at all—despite how uncomfortable that truth may be.
“Some hunters, of course, are almost certainly engaged in a vainglorious pursuit of power. But after spending time with dozens of Tajik hunting guides and wildlife biologists 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.”
Seriously? Who is he kidding? Is he really expecting us to feel for the mental and emotional turmoil the poor hunters suffer while they are ‘having their fun’, rather than for their innocent victims, trying to survive and rear young in a harsh environment, suddenly confronted by a man with a gun?
Goldman continues to embellish the myth of the sensitive soul that is the trophy hunter. He quotes the reflections of another of the super-rich, this time from South Africa, who trekked for days over inhospitable mountain terrain to get within shooting range of a markhor: “You’re faced with sadness and joy. 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.”
O – M – G
Sadly Bill Campbell’s hunt too was ‘successful’. “It was a beautiful animal in a beautiful setting. It was the most exciting hunt of my life.”
Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the US is also a man who knows how to hit his target, but his weapon is words: “Cruel, self-aggrandizing, larcenous, and shameful,” is his judgement on trophy hunting.
The concession where Campbell bagged his markhor issues only one hunting licence per year. As Tadjikistan is an exporter of gold, the argument goes that selling licences to rich hunters like him enable privately held lands to be managed for wildlife, when they might well otherwise be despoiled by mining.
But licence money alone is not enough to halt the decline of these rare goats. Not unless villagers are incentivised to stop poaching. The goats’ value is not in some (illegal) internationally tradeable commodity like elephant ivory or rhino horn. Their value is as a local source of food.
The long-established Torghar Conservation Project in neighbouring Pakistan that both pays the locals as game guards and also turns over to them the ‘lion’s share’ of the meat from licensed hunting suggested a possible model for Tadjikistan.
Enter Panthera, the only organization in the world devoted exclusively to the conservation of the world’s wild cats. Panthera gives support to the local communities in the form of wildlife monitoring training, as well as hardware such as binoculars and vehicles. The organisation’s interest in conserving markhors however, is only as the preferred prey of snow leopards. More markhors mean more snow leopards.
To this end they are happy to assist the local people not only to interface with their government and the IUCN, but also international hunting organisations. Not just WWF, then.
This is the official version of what happens to the $120,000 Campbell and his ilk hand over for their licence to kill:
- $41,000 to the Tadjiki government
- Of that money, $8,200 is channeled into national government coffers
- According to the Mamadnazarbekov, Deputy Chair of the Committee for Environmental Protection, ‘a fair amount’ of that $8,200 is used ‘to benefit wildlife and the public’
- The remaining $32,800 is split between regional and local authorities
- ‘Most’ of what is left of the $120,000 after the government takes its cut stays with the private hunting concession and pays for the markhor’s protection, as well as community projects like water pipes and funding for schools
Even Goldman though, the hunters’ apologist is forced to admit:
“It’s hard to determine how much of what Mamadnazarbekov describes 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.”
How easily ethical concerns are dismissed when it comes to justifying trophy hunting.
Goldman continues, “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.”
Well, as a matter of fact, we could argue with the results. Describing the markhor population as flourishing might be over-egging it. Remember that in 2015 the markhor graduated from Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List to Near Threatened? Well, this is how IUCN defines Near Threatened:
A taxon [species] is Near Threatened when it has been evaluated against the criteria but does not qualify for Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable now, but is close to qualifying for or is likely to qualify for a threatened category in the near future.”
Not quite out of the woods yet.
But Tanya Rosen, Panthera’s director of snow leopard protection, reckons to have seen a welcome rise in the cat’s population – we’re talking small numbers here, from 6 to 10. Nevertheless, the highest density of these rare and elusive creatures seen anywhere in the world.
Goldman concludes, “Isn’t it better to sacrifice a few old animals [markhors] in order to maintain an entire functioning ecosystem?” Many of us would answer “NO, absolutely not”. The markhor may not be as iconic as the snow leopard, but its life counts just as much.
In a country with such amazing scenery, wildlife and culture (the ancient Silk Road from India to China runs right through the Pamir mountains), there is much for any visitor that does not come to kill.
BirdLife International has designated a large area around the famously beautiful turquoise Iskanderkul Lake in the Fann mountains an IBA (Important Bird & Biodiversity Area).
Migrant bird visitors and residents include Himalayan snowcocks, saker falcons, cinereous vultures, yellow-billed choughs, Hume’s larks, sulphur-bellied warblers, wallcreepers, Himalayan rubythroats, white-winged redstarts, white-winged snowfinches, alpine accentors, rufous-streaked accentors, brown accentors, water pipits, fire-fronted serins, plain mountain-finches, crimson-winged finches, red-mantled rosefinches and white-winged grosbeaks.
The dramatic rugged terrain makes it a mecca not just for birders, but for all wildlife enthusiasts and nature lovers, as well as trekkers, climbers and photographers.
Moreover, Pamir Mountains Ecotourism is ready and waiting to put together your own tailor-made tour. It wouldn’t be cheap, but I doubt it costs $120,000. And isn’t that a much better way to conserve the majestic landscape and all that call it home, human and nonhuman?
Yet no qualms about killing goats on the rooftop of the world trouble the conscience of psychiatrist/hunter Bill Campbell. “I feel good about it in my heart because I feel like I’m promoting really effective conservation,” he says.
Well that’s all right then.
It’s little surprise to find that Campbell is a buddy of dentist Walter Palmer, the infamous killer of Cecil the lion. “I feel sorry for him,” Campbell says. “I think that the people who lynched him [online] don’t realize how much he has done for conservation. 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.”
Spitting feathers anyone?
Meanwhile, in Tadjikistan’s neighbour Kyrgystan, trophy hunting and corruption go hand in hand.
The Focusing on Wildlife poll: Should trophy hunting in Kyrgystan be banned?
“The hunting of ibex and argali sheep has had a knock-on [effect] on the snow leopard – the situation is so bad we only have three breeding populations of snow leopard in Kyrgyzstan. Hunting and wildlife conservation cannot coexist.”
Emil Shukurov, one of the country’s leading ecologists. Read more
Please sign & share as many as you can – unrelated to Tadjikistan and the markhor, but important nonetheless
More to be found here. Some are closed, but many are not.
Shoot to Save – bioGraphic
Iskanderkul – Wiki