Panthera recently teamed up for conserving snow leopards in Kyrgyzstan with the National Academy of Sciences of the Kyrgyz Republic and the National Center for Mountain Regions Development (NCMRD), the working body of the Special Representative of the President of the Kyrgyz Republic on the sustainable development of mountain regions of the Kyrgyz Republic.
Maksatbek Anarbaev of NCMRD has in 2008 launched “Kaiberen” (see the Facebook page “Kaiberen Project”) a project on the research and conservation of carnivores and their mountain ungulate prey with support from Shinshu University in Japan and the Japanese Ministry of Education and Science. Fairy tales and legends depict Kaiberen as the God-angel of all wild ungulates. Over the past few weeks while traveling with Askar Davletbakov from the Academy and Maksatbek and Zair Kubanychbekov of NCMRD across Kyrgyzstan in the framework of the project, I have learned that Kaiberen is more than just a project.
Kaiberen the Legend
In Kyrgyz folklore, there is a song called the “Song of the old hunter – Karagul”: the lyrics refer to Karagul, an old hunter, who, together with his wife, long waited to have children and finally has a son. The hunter kills many ibex, sparing neither the female nor the young. One day his little son pleads with his father not to go hunting but he goes nevertheless. His son follows him and at some point falls asleep under a bush. The father follows a female ibex who then retreats in the same bush where the son is sleeping. When the hunter tries to shoot at her, he actually ends up shooting his own son.
Another legend is about Kodzhodzash, a strong leader of the hunter tribe “Ak-Bars” (white leopards). This tribe followed a law of their ancestors to not overuse wild ungulates. Kodzhodzash violates this law and kills the “she-goat”, the holy ibex, leaving alive only her and her mate. When the she-goat begs Kodzhodzash to spare her mate so that they can reproduce, he ruthlessly kills him as well. The she-goat then begs Kodzhodzash to kill her as well, warning him that if he misses the shot and wounds her only that it will be his last shot. He shoots but only wounds her and pursues her up a high cliff from where there is no way down. At that point the she-goat curses Kodzhodzash: “May your father cry over you as I cry over my murdered children and for the loss of my kind; may your father howl alone in the cold mountains as I howl now.. I curse you Kodzhodzash, I curse you.” He cannot climb down, and dies there on the top of the mountain. A 1985 Kyrgyz movie called “Потомок белого барса” (Descendant of the Snow Leopard) by Tolomush Okeev depicts this legend.
The song and poem evoke a very powerful tradition among the Kyrgyz. That hunting is allowed: the meat of the ibex and other mountain ungulates is purifying, their skins ward off evil spirits. At the same time there is a sacred balance that needs to be maintained between man and nature and if that balance is lost, something terrible will befell. Hunters were warned not to kill more than 1000 of the ibex and other mountain ungulates over their lifetime. Upon the killing of the 1001th ibex or other mountain ungulate, a hunter would go blind or deaf or would kill his own son, mistaking him for a goat. It was quite chilling sitting in the village of Daroot-Korgon in the Alai valley and hearing from a traditional hunter gone blind that the last ibex he shoot in his life before losing sight was an ibex that stood still and that he therefore thought was the Kaiberen.
Stopping the Trapping of Snow Leopards and the Unsustainable Use of their Prey in the Alai Valley
Earlier in the day, with Maksatbek, Zair and Askar we hiked up from the village of Jar-Bashy in the Alai valley to Ming-teke, the valley of 1000 ibex which, according to Yakut, an old traditional hunter, is no longer home to 1000 ibex. Yakut explained to us that many hunters have gone blind because of violating what he calls “the principle of sustainable use” set by Kaiberen, the she-goat. He also told us of snow leopards routinely trapped each year to meet the desires of wealthy people in Kyrgyzstan and abroad to adorn their homes with snow leopard skins.
We agreed that the only way to ensure the long term survival of snow leopards and their prey, the ibex and argali, is to bring together all the traditional hunters in the valley and to use the powerful narrative of the Kaiberen legend combined with the successful conservation stories of community-based conservation efforts, such as those in the Tajik Pamirs (see Facebook Page “Community-based Wildlife Conservation in Tajikistan”). Local people that have the opportunity to manage their own areas often have a higher degree of motivation and success in protecting them especially in Central Asia since traditional protected areas are chronically under funded.
However, in Kyrgyzstan, there are some protected areas where despite poor funding, some rangers work in their own words “not for the money but so that my children can grow up to see the beautiful wildlife of Kyrgyzstan”.
Naryn, a Protected Area not just on Paper
One of Kaiberen project’s study areas is in the Naryn State Strict Nature Reserve. The Naryn Reserve, covering approximately 1000 km2 was established in 1983 and has some of the most committed rangers I have ever met in this region. Years ago, they stood together to block the construction of a Chinese mine access road through the buffer zone of the Reserve. Despite poaching still being a serious threat, this reserve boasts a great diversity of wildlife: from the Tien Shan maral (elk), to the brown bear, wolf, ibex, argali and of course the snow leopard.
With Maksatbek, Zairbek and Zholdoshbek Kyrbashev, the Deputy of the Reserve and four other rangers we travelled on horseback for several days to learn about this Reserve and check twelve camera traps placed in the framework of the Kaiberen project. Since the importance of the Reserve for snow leopards has been played down by some, it was a nice surprise to find on two of the cameras five different snow leopards, including one female snow leopard with two cubs. In fact these are the first ever images and videos of snow leopards from this Reserve. We look forward to the work awaiting us in the Alai and Naryn with Kaiberen and the National Academy of Sciences.