Tajikistan Brings Endangered Wild Goat From the Edge of Extinction to the Peak of Hope

A Tajik Markhor above the village of Zighar. (Photograph by Tatjana Rosen Michel)

The markhor is an endangered wild goat occurring in southern Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, and India. It is categorized as endangered on the IUCN Red List and listed under Appendix I of CITES. But in Tajikistan, people have come together to protect this wild goat with towering horns to the benefit of the one who rules them all—the snow leopard.

The Rivendell of Tajikistan

Traveling through much of markhor habitat in Tajikistan is like traveling back in time in the fantasy world of J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. “You have come to the very edge of the Wild, as some of you may know. Hidden somewhere ahead of us is the fair valley of Rivendell,” writes Tolkien, and this is the association I have each time I arrive on a small terrace nestled among towering cliffs and waterfalls looking over the Panj river and into Afghanistan.

Lush shrubs and fruit trees adorn it and a quick skim of the landscape with binoculars reveals an explosion of biodiversity: Himalayan vultures and lammergeiers swooping across the skies, families of bears hidden in juniper bushes feeding under cotoneasters and other fruit trees, herds of markhor and ibex peacefully grazing, and sometimes, if you are lucky, a snow leopard waiting to pounce on a markhor.

A herd of Tajik Markhor blends in the landscape. (Photograph by Tatjana Rosen Michel)
A herd of Tajik Markhor blends into the landscape. (Photograph by Tatjana Rosen Michel)

Davlatkhon: The Traditional Hunter Turned Conservationist 

There were less than 350 markhor in Tajikistan in the mid-90s. During a wide-range survey conducted in 2012, reflected in the May 2014 paper published in Oryx entitled “Population status of Heptner’s markhor Capra falconeri heptneri in Tajikistan: Challenges for conservation” we observed 1,018 markhor. And in a new survey this year, carried out by Panthera in collaboration with the Tajik Committee on Environmental Protection, the Forest Agency and Academy of Sciences, and the German Development and Cooperation Agency (GIZ), we observed 1,300 markhor.

What explains this welcome increase? About eight years ago, several individuals and families living in the southern part of Tajikistan across the markhor shrinking range realized that the population of markhor was soon going to go extinct due to indiscriminate poaching and illegal trophy hunting. One of those people was Davlatkhon Mulloyorov, a traditional hunter from the small village of Zighar.

Himalayan Brown Bear above Zighar in the Darvaz range. (Photograph by Eric Dragesco)
A Himalayan brown bear above Zighar in the Darvaz range. (Photograph by Eric Dragesco)

He was inspired by stories from Pakistan, such as those stories coming from the conservancies in Torghar in Balochistan and Skoyo, Krabathang, and Basingo in Baltistan. Programs in Pakistan were established where revenue from sustainable managed trophy hunting, in the words of Marco Festa-Bianchet, chair of the IUCN Caprinae Specialist Group, “goes to the local people, allowing them to combat poaching and protect habitat, as well as deriving livelihood benefits from the presence of healthy populations of mountain ungulates.” Over the years, Davlatkhon not only mobilized people in his village and nearby areas, but also inspired people in the neighboring mountain range, the Hazratishoh.

Davlatkhon helping us find places where to place camera traps. (Photograph by Tatjana Rosen/Panthera)
Davlatkhon helping us find places where to place camera traps. (Photograph by Tatjana Rosen/Panthera)

Saving Snow Leopards and Other Wildlife by Saving the Markhor

Markhor are a very important food source for the snow leopard, which is why efforts to protect this species are of critical importance for snow leopard conservation. On two blustery February days in 2012 we watched a snow leopard stalking the markhor. Not to mention the signs we would come across: from tracks and scrapes to markhor kills left for the lammergeiers to finish. We drew the hypothesis that with so many markhor, there must be quite a significant number of snow leopards.

A camera trapping survey in 2013 (co-funded by the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative) confirmed it: from the pictures, we identified at least six individual snow leopards in an area of only about 40km2, the highest recorded density of snow leopards in the entire country of Tajikistan to date. The survey also revealed wider implications of these markhor conservation efforts, which had a cascading effect not only on the main predator of the markhor, the snow leopard, but on other species as well. It resulted in the discovery of the Asiatic Wild cat, and the Eurasian lynx in the region for the first time, as well as a healthy population of brown bears, the subspecies isabellinus.

First ever sighting of Asiatic Wild Cat in the southern part of Tajikistan. (Camera Trap Photograph by Panthera/AoS/M-Sayod)
First ever sighting of Asiatic Wild Cat in the southern part of Tajikistan. (Camera Trap Photograph by Panthera/AoS/M-Sayod)

Conservation Amidst Landmines and the Lawless

The challenges these communities face to conserve the markhor are still quite daunting. Such challenges include navigating a terrain that in some areas is still littered with land mines and negotiating encounters with armed intruders from Afghanistan, who may be mining gold or smuggling drugs while poaching the wildlife.

A land mine sign in Hazratishoh. (Photograph by Stefan Michel)
A land mine sign in Hazratishoh. (Photograph by Stefan Michel)

And yet rangers from these communities risk their lives to protect these animals because they know that if they can sustain healthy populations of markhor, they can eventually see the rewards through some limited sustainable use of the species. And we are not just talking about financial rewards, but also about the deserved recognition that these local communities would like to achieve for conserving species that the world cares about. In a country like Tajikistan, one of the poorest in the world and dependent on development funding, local people like Davlatkhon stand out and show that they can take care of their wildlife.

The Ikromov family in Sar Chashma helped seize more than 100 markhor skins from a camp of Afghan poachers. (Photograph by Stefan Michel)
The Ikromov family in Sar Chashma helped seize more than 100 markhor skins from a camp of Afghan poachers. (Photograph by Stefan Michel)

To Use it or Lose it?

The role that sustainable use through trophy hunting of the mountain ungulate prey plays in the conservation of snow leopards and their prey is important. (See related: “Conserving snow leopards through sustainable use of mountain ungulates in Tajikistan.”) It remains highly controversial and ridden with difficulties. One major obstacle is that Tajikistan is yet to become a member of CITES. The ratification of this convention would make it easier for the international community to support efforts to curb illegal trophy hunting of CITES-listed species in the country as well as contribute to shaping and supporting community-based wildlife management and sound sustainable use initiatives in Tajikistan.

Changing Planet

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Tanya is a Cat Conservationist, member of the IUCN Cat Specialist Group and National Geographic Explorer in Central Asia. She is based in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Her current work is focused on eliminating human-cat conflict across Central Asia, supporting community-based wildlife conservancies and understanding the scale of illegal trade in wild cats and their endangered prey species.