Paws and Noses at the Forefront of the Fight Against Illegal Wildlife Trade in Central Asia

The fall of 2014 was difficult: an unpleasant incident occurred that however created an opportunity to tackle crossborder illegal trafficking in wildlife in Central Asia in an innovative way.

Detection dog at work at Tajik/Kyrgyz border post (Photograph by Joel Caldwell/Panthera)

Intelligence from our informant network pointed to illegal trophy hunts in Tajik National Park and trophies illegally exported from Tajikistan into Kyrgyzstan and onwards to Russia and European countries using illegal CITES documentation: 30-40 trophies each year. With Kyrgyzstan joining the Eurasian Customs Union, we worried that the illegal transport of wildlife, including poached trophies, was likely to be even harder to detect (see the TRAFFIC report “Wildlife trade in the Eurasian Customs Union and in selected Central Asian countries“) as wildlife products traveled through countries between which customs controls would now be lifted.

The prospect of a toy like a tennis ball is what motivates detection dogs to find the scents they are trained to locate (Photograph by Joel Caldwell/Panthera)

In late 2015, the Kyrgyz State Customs Service signed the first Memorandum of Understanding with a foreign NGO, ours  – Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization. And that’s how our unique collaboration started. We brought in the NGO Working Dogs for Conservation (based in Montana) and trainer Aimee Hurt to assist in cross training four detection dogs to detect snow leopard, argali and ibex. We could not have worked with a better team of dogs, handlers and local trainers. Each is wonderful and incredibly dedicated. The dogs went to work in the summer of 2016. The post at the border crossing between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan is inhospitable and desolate, characteristics hard on both the dogs and the morale of Border and Customs staff.

Wildlife Detection Dogs of the Kyrgyz Customs State Service are trained in the detection of narcotics and crosstrained to detect snow leopard, argali and ibex (Photography by Joel Caldwell/Panthera)

But on April 27, 2017, their sacrifices and hard work was rewarded: the team caught an illegal shipment of seven argali and four ibex trophies (see here for more information and pictures  Large consignment of argali and ibex horns were detained at the Kyrgyz-Tajik border). While both species are legally hunted on quota in the region, these had been hunted without permits in Tajikistan and were being smuggled across the border.

Thanks to support from our donors we are facilitating with the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity (ACBK) and Flora and Fauna International (FFI) a new collaboration between the Kyrgyz and Kazakh Customs detection dog units to detect illegal trade in saiga and saker falcon (Photograph by Joel Caldwell/Panthera)

Let this sink in: six years of intelligence points to events like this happening regularly, and finally people are caught for the very first time. And all thanks to a dog. The person transporting the horns, a middleman for one of the hunting outfits implicated, tried unsuccessfully to convince the agents and handler at the border to take a bribe. He was arrested and taken to the city of Osh in Kyrgyzstan. Another middleman of the hunting outfit then tried to unsuccessfully bribe officials in Osh to take money to replace the tags on the trophies to make them “legal”.

(Photograph by Joel Caldwell/Panthera)

An investigation is currently underway, and Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are working together to bring those responsible to justice: not just the middlemen, but also the hunting outfitters involved, one of which is based in Moscow, Russian Federation.

CITES, TRAFFIC and several European authorities were alerted and there are already suggestions to develop a EU enforcement strategy against hunters and outfitters operating in Europe that organize/participate in illegal trophy hunts. A similar strategy could be suggested for the US market. Some US hunters and outfitters have worked with the very same people implicated in this seizure, and the Wild Sheep Foundation has already indicated that this case goes against their values and plan to take action against outfitters involved in this type of incident. In the words of Jack Atcheson, Wild Sheep Foundation Conservation Committee Chairman, people involved in activities such as this are poachers and not hunters. We look forward to seeing their response.

We are in awe of all the institutions, their people and dogs responsible for this seizure and for hard work ahead to try this case. I am especially thankful to the Kyrgyz Customs State Service, the State Agency on Environmental Protection and Forestry of the Kyrgyz Republic and the Tajik Committee on Environmental Protection under the Government of the Republic of Tajikistan. We are grateful to John Krob, former adviser at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, who played a great role in setting up this project and the people working in the shadows who I cannot name and our team on the ground. We would like to thank all of the donors and foundations who believed in the value of this project from the beginning, and especially the Judith McBean Foundation, Robert Kyosaki, National Geographic Big Cats Initiative, Trust for Mutual Understanding, and as of very recently, the UK Government through the Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund. We would also like to thank US Fish and Wildlife Service through their support to Working Dogs for Conservation. Finally, we are also thankful to all of those who believe in the power of a dog’s nose and of dogs and people working together.

The border between Tajikistan and Kyrgzstan is a trafficking route for narcotics and wildlife.
(Photograph by Joel Caldwell/Panthera)


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.
  • Stefan Michel

    Great success and a very inspiring article!

    Congratulations and fingers crossed this will support the responsible agents, hunters and game managers and discourage unsustainable and illegal practices!

  • Thank you Stefan! Let’s hope!!

  • Chris Weaver

    Hey Tanya, congratulations to you and PANTHERA for in-earthing this illegal trade of argali and ibex. There is no place for this type of operation as we strive to link conservation with sustainable use. Hopefully, the hunting company will be severely penalized and be recognized widely as an unethical and undesirable operation.
    Best wishes,
    Chris Weaver

    • Thank you so much Chris! Trying our best – most of the problems seem to be concentrated in the area we hiked through together years ago when you came to Tajikistan..

  • Rosie Cooney

    Fantastic work Tanya – congratulations to you and all your colleagues (including the canines!). This kind of illegal behaviour really critically undermines the successes of community conservancies in Tajikistan using hunting in positive ways. Great to see all these years of investment paying off, and I hope the authorities and hunting organisations will strongly support action now and in the future to crack down on illegal behaviour.

    • Dear Rosie, thank you! We still have a long way to go and support from IUCN and SuLi will be critical. Thank you for all you are doing to help. Team work!

  • Matthew Lewis

    On behalf of Larry Higgins, President of SCI, and Warren Sackman, President of SCI Foundation, Safari Club International and Safari Club International Foundation would like to thank Panthera and Tanya Rosen for your work in exposing this troubling case. SCI and SCIF stand firm in our resolve to ensure that hunting continues to be conducted ethically, legally and sustainably. We support the comments of our partner organization Wild Sheep Foundation and agree that poachers are not hunters, and hunters are not poachers. SCI and SCIF have invested nearly a decade of support for scientific research and management of argali and other mountain ungulates, as well as snow leopards in this important region and are diligently working to collect the best available science to inform wildlife management. We are also committed to building the capacity of the governments of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to ensure the continued sustainability of wildlife management in this region. We offer any support and assistance we can provide in making sure the criminals involved in this matter are brought to justice.

    • Thank you – especially from those in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan involved in the investigation. The fines that hopefully those implicated will pay will be small compared to the economic damage that the outfitters implicated can suffer from losing hunting clients who believe in LEGAL and SUSTAINABLE use of wildlife.

  • Anahita Saymidinova

    Great job, Tatjana! Thank you for your effort to preserve and protect wildlife in Central Asia including Tajikistan. I’ve read there are only 300 snow leopards in Tajikistan, Hope you will increase awareness among local populations about the importance of these elegant creatures. Good luck for your future projects in this area.

    Warm regards from Dushanbe,
    Anahita Saymidinova

    • Dear Anahita

      Thank you so much for your words. It’s amazing to see how many people in local communities care about snow leopards and tolerate the level of conflict. And when it comes to poaching of the prey, like the Marco Polo sheep and ibex, there are ways to address them. People in Tajikistan have a lot to teach about living with wildlife to other countries (developed ones especially)!

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