It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end… because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing… this shadow. Even darkness must pass.”
[Sam, The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien]
I never thought before coming to Central Asia 7 years ago that the “tools of our trade” camera traps and GPS collars could be ever considered as devices for spying; supporting community-based conservation deemed akin to supporting separatist movements; or helping communities identify economic incentives for conservation, equivalent to running a trophy hunting operation. But when the stars align in the wrong way to put it mildly, in Tajikistan, Iran and elsewhere, that is what you can be accused of and the consequences can be quite dire and send years of conservation efforts crashing.
In the Crosshairs
For the summer of 2018, Panthera and the Hunting and Conservation Alliance (H&CAT), the umbrella for all community-based conservancies, had planned several activities: the continuation of the Tajik Women & Conservation Initiative aimed at training young women from the Bartang valley and Alichur range as rangers and guides; the Tajik Kittens, the kids nature camp; and a camera trap survey in Shaimak and Tokhtamish, near the borders with China and Afghanistan to address knowledge gaps on snow leopard habitat use and fulfill UN Development Programme/Global Environment Facility commitments of the Tajik government.
Except that we could not, as a hunting concession owner used his influence over government officials to threaten and intimidate our team. In a quick succession of events, all of our activities in the eastern Pamirs were abruptly stopped. The international team was forced to leave the country, while I was forced to stay. It was scary and stressful for the adults among us and for my daughter and her friend and the children of our conservancy leader who witnessed too many unpleasant moments.
Adding to the anxiety, all of this happened the day after the first terror attack ever in Tajikistan targeting foreigners, where 4 cyclists were brutally killed.
Empowering local communities by recognizing them as stewards of their lands and wildlife is a very effective way to addressing poaching and generating support for wildlife conservation. Over the years Panthera, GIZ and partners supported the development of several community-based conservancies that have showed remarkable successes in conserving snow leopards and their prey. And the story of the “Burgut” conservancy is probably one of the most celebrated ones. We hoped that this one particular trophy hunting concession owner, who caused all these problems, and who controls how most of the Marco Polo sheep hunt permits are allocated, would tolerate “Burgut”. We tried hard to convince him that the community-based conservancies are no threat to his trophy hunting business. To no avail. So he vowed to shut us down and threatened us.
Hope begins in the dark
As I write, there is an order to shut the Panthera Tajikistan branch down and all of our activities are formally on hold. One of the underlying accusations is that conservation is just a cover for other suspicious activities. H&CAT and conservancies we support may be next to be shut.
We are thankful to the US and UK embassies for being there for us, and the kindness of Hugh Philpott, Kevin Covert and Drew Bury. In the darkness of these days, what has been incredible to witness is the resilience and strength of the conservancies and our teams. Despite the risks and the threats, some of the conservancies felt defiant enough to host the TW&C training and provide security. Ana-Maria Pavalache and Piia Kortsalo, the trainers, took everything in stride and inspired with their bold spirit the young trainees. Every day or so they texted a photo of the entire cohort with their hands in the air “roaring”. Somehow that simple act became the symbol of standing up to the injustice our conservation work is subjected to. Similarly in Alichur, Mahan, the leader of the “Burgut” conservancy, his 14 year old son Uluhbek and some rangers, collected the kids in the village and took them into the mountains and ran an incredible camp. They too, throwing their arms in the air, roared infront of the camera traps they set up.
The next two articles will be about these two trainings, and about resilience, love and coming together for a cause that pushes everyone in this story to overcome even the greatest obstacles. Love wins over fear. Always.