Argali, ibex, and bears, oh my.

On February 12, the YAF co-sponsored an event with the Yale Large Carnivore Group at the Forestry School, on the challenges of wildlife conservation in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This has given me another idea for a dream job – traipsing around the Wakhan corridor, sample bag in hand, picking up sheep poop. No, really.

That’s what Rich Harris did in 2008, in a project using genetic analysis of “fecal pellet samples” to literally count sheep – Marco Polo sheep, that is, a rare species found around the border areas of Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, and China. The results? Hard to tell. There are many fewer sheep than there were in hazy reports from 30 years ago, but the population is not genetically isolated – some sheep may be immigrating illegally and refreshing the gene pool on the other side of the border, or traveling between areas where populations have been observed in the Wakhan. Afghanistan has placed the argali (another name for Marco Polo sheep) on a strict protected list, while the idea of harvesting ibex is open for consideration. Harris proposed that the local Wakhi people be given some oversight in the management of ibex, with a quota allowed for consumption – a way to regulate the hunts which may otherwise go on unobserved, and promote buy-in from and benefits to locals.

Harris also described some budding ecotourism projects in the region,  which are largely cut off from potential tourists by the instability in the rest of Afghanistan. Most homestay guests are currently researchers studying ecotourism. Ay vay.

On the topic of trophy hunting, Shafqat Hussain described some of the challenges of projects in Pakistan aiming to sell or auction permits for hunting markhor, which can go for tens of thousands of dollars. Middlemen pocket some. Guides pocket some. Ideally, the projects benefit local communities – and even a small percentage of a sky-high price can go a long way in rupees. Hussain stressed the importance of oversight, however, since such quantities of money attract a secondary hunt to siphon them off.

I know very little about wildlife conservation in this part of the world, and was glad to learn more. I saw nothing but domestic goats and donkeys – some cool hawks – and a few lizards and marmots during my hikes in the Pamirs. I did end up running into a rickety van full of off-duty Tajik army officers in Ali Chur (Ali’s Curse – a middle-of-nowhere place) last summer, who said they were on their way to “shikar” (hunt) Marcos, and demonstrated with a gun pantomime. Maybe they had a permit – beats me. They certainly had enough vodka. There are also some interesting sets of horns adorning the new vacation homes north of Dushanbe.

Kudos to the Forestry School for putting on this event, and to Hussain and Harris for their efforts to bring scientific rigor and common sense to conservation efforts.

Bears – I promised bears. There are brown bears in the Wakhan too.

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