Post submitted by Matthias Fiechter, Communications Manager of Snow Leopard Trust.
Kyrgyzstan tries a new approach to protect snow leopards and their prey.
Conservationists and the government are teaming up to turn a hunting concession, where ibex were commercially hunted, into a co-managed nature reserve.
The 100 square mile former concession area, Shamshy, in Kyrgyzstan’s northern Tian Shan mountains, is home to ibex, and seasonal populations of argali and wolves. It lies within a large snow leopard landscape, and has the potential to become a key part of the home ranges of several of these endangered cats if its wild ungulate population could be increased.
Shamshy’s ibex used to be hunted commercially — but now, they will be allowed to thrive and recover undisturbed, as hunting will no longer be allowed. This comes as part of a pilot project that aims to turn the former hunting concession into a new type of reserve, co-managed by the government, conservation NGOs, and local people.
The Snow Leopard Trust, a conservation organization based in Seattle WA, is one of the key partners in this new venture.
“Ibex and other wild ungulates are the key prey for the endangered snow leopard. Wherever their numbers are dwindling, for instance if they’re hunted in an unsustainable way, the number of snow leopards drops as well. So we’re trying to protect prey in order to save the predator”, says Charu Mishra, the Snow Leopard Trust’s Science & Conservation Director.
“With proper protection and management, Shamshy’s ibex population could double or even triple in the next 10 years, so it could become an important feeding ground for the local snow leopard population”, he adds.
An Idea Born Out of the Trophy Hunting Debate
Commercial big game hunting, often referred to as ‘trophy hunting’, is a revenue source for many countries around the world, and a hotly debated topic in conservation circles. Advocates of trophy hunting say that selling licenses to hunt big game generates funds, which can be used for conservation projects, while opponents fear that it adds to the pressure many species are already under, and also question the ethics of the practice.
The idea of turning a former hunting concession into a nature reserve was born out of this debate.
“In a hunting concession, the company that leases and manages the area would have the exclusive right to sell a stipulated number of licenses given out by the hunting department to shoot argali or ibex to any interested party — and they’d have the right to protect their interests e.g. by employing rangers. In our case, we’ll have similar rights, but we won’t sell any hunting licenses, and we’ll have rangers patrolling the area to make sure that there’s no hunting at all. We will also work with local people in the surrounding region, initiate community-based programs that they can benefit from, and strengthen their support for conservation”, Charu Mishra says.
The area will be used for research, education and limited ecotourism — camera trap population surveys of snow leopards, and distribution and abundance surveys of ibex and other species; and also law enforcement trainings for park rangers, and possibly nature camps for local children are slated for the coming years.
This new, innovative approach is made possible by a partnership between the Snow Leopard Trust, Snow Leopard Foundation Kyrgyzstan, and the Department of Hunting and Natural Resource Management under the State Agency for Environment Protection and Forestry of the Kyrgyz Republic, which issues hunting concessions and licenses in the Central Asian country.
“It is our duty to manage the natural resources of the Kyrgyz Republic sustainably”, says Musaef Almaz, the Department of Hunting and Natural Resource Management’s Director. “This means finding a healthy balance between hunting and conservation. We believe that this innovative idea of co-managing some of our concessions with partners such as the Snow Leopard Trust and the local people has a lot of potential.”
More Reserves Could Be Added in the Future
For this pilot, the Hunting Department has forfeited the cost of the hunting licenses that could have been sold in this area, had it been rented out to a commercial outfit. All partners will share expertise, the cost of training, equipment and salaries for the rangers, as well as any other costs that arise from the co-management of the area.
Shamshy is an ideal spot for the pilot. It offers natural features that make it a good habitat for a wide range of species. “Shamshy has a bit of everything — the terrain gradually changes from lush meadows and thick forests along a crystal clear stream to grassland, and finally to steep, rocky peaks covered in glaciers”, says Kuban Jumabai uulu, the Director of the Snow Leopard Foundation Kyrgyzstan.
While the area is fairly easy to access by road, there are only two conceivable entry points into the reserve, it’s feasible to monitor and patrol the area with a small team of rangers drawn from the local communities around.
“Local people are crucial partners for any conservation initiative”, Kuban Jumabai uulu says, “they will retain their right to graze their animals in Shamshy, albeit in an informed and systematically managed way”.
“We’re looking forward to seeing the results of this approach” says Musaef Almaz “If it works as well as we expect, we will expand it to other hunting concession areas in the future together.”
Charu Mishra agrees: “This pilot can be a great start to a promising new conservation approach that could really make a difference for Kyrgyzstan’s wildlife.”
This project is supported by Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo and Partnership Funding by Fondation Segre, managed by Whitley Fund for Nature.