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Photo courtesy of Bryan Martin
By: Raul Valdez
Few big game animals have had as much fame among the hunting fraternity as has the Marco Polo sheep or argali. In the history of wild sheep hunting, Marco Polo’s argali is unique for it was considered a mythical creature and one the greatest mysteries in the history of Asian natural history. Among Asian hunters it is one of the most coveted trophies and among sheep hunters it is the ultimate sheep trophy. Yet it is only relatively recently that it was known to the hunting world. It was first brought to the attention of the Europeans by Marco Polo who claimed there was a giant sheep in central Asia whose horns were so long that natives constructed fences with their horns. The Pamir argali was considered a figment of Marco Polo’s imagination until 600 years later when in 1840, Lt. John Wood, British explorer and secret agent, first obtained two specimens shot by native Kirghiz hunters. Shortly after, the Pamirs became the Asian big game hunters’ mecca for it was the home of one of the world’s most desired big game trophies. The setting was mystical– the Roof of the World–and the trophy unbelievable: a wild sheep with spiraling horns up to 75 inches in length.
By the late 1800s European hunters successfully collected trophies of this and other argalis such as the Tibetan argali. The first American hunters did not reach the Pamirs until the 1920s. The modern era of Marco Polo argali hunting was initiated in 1967 when The Afghan Pamirs were opened officially to foreign hunter but closed in 1979 when the Soviet Army invaded Afghanistan. Argali hunting in Tajikistan was initiated in 1987.
Their population numbers have probably vacillated greatly in the last hundred years. In 1920s, Wiliam Morden and James L Clark saw 1600 sheep in the Afghan Pamirs during a seven-day hunt. The population could be considered to have been relatively healthy, probably due to the small human population, few firearms and lack of motorized vehicles. The region was isolated and difficult to access even into the 1950s. During the modern period of Soviet occupation of the Tajjik Pamirs, numbers plummeted due to uncontrolled hunting for subsistence and commercial purposes and the relentless hunting by Soviet troops, for sport and meat. After the end of the Soviet Union, Tajikistan went through an unstable period of internal strife. The wild sheep population was negatively affected during this period because of the widespread availability and use of firearms for subsistence hunting and total lack of law enforcement.
By the late 1990s, there were an estimated less than 15,000 Marco Polo argali in their entire range, including Afghanistan, China, Kirghizstan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan, with the largest number believed to be in Tajikistan. However, these estimates were based on speculative estimates because of the lack of long-term and extensive studies and especially the lack of monitoring programs to determine numbers and composition (male: female, lamb: female and yearling: female ratios). Later studies revealed that indeed numbers in countries other than Tajikistan were low. The negative reports on argali numbers throughout most of their range prompted the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list argalis as endangered in most countries except in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Mongolia where they were designated as threatened effective January 3, 1993.
I personally conducted a ground winter survey on horseback in the Chinese Pamir in 2009 and did not see more than 30 animals in any one day. It was evident that the principal negative reason for such low numbers was the lack of available forage. The large numbers of domestic sheep grazed throughout the Chinese Pamirs during summers greatly decreased the available vegetation, leaving inadequate forage for wild sheep during the winter. As a consequence, wild sheep probably avoid using this portion of their range, especially during the winter. An earlier survey estimated there were no more than 250 Marco Polo argali in China.
The present status of Marco Polo sheep in Tajikistan is considerably different from that in other countries. Tajikistan, situated in central Asia, encompasses an area of 55,251 sq. mi. (about the size of Iowa or one-third the size of Montana) and is bordered by China, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. It has a human population of 7 million. More than 90% of the country is mountainous. The highest mountains occur in the eastern portion of the country and are dominated by the Pamir uplands or Roof of the World. Large mammals in the Pamirs other than wild sheep include ibex, wolves, and snow leopards. Marco Polo argali occur principally at 12,000 to 16,000 feet.
There was considerable speculation that wild sheep in the Pamirs were decreasing during the early years of this century. This prompted the Tajikistan government to cancel wild sheep hunts in 2008 and 2009. Even though a winter wild sheep survey in 2009 revealed that there was a minimum population 24,000 wild sheep, the central government was reluctant to open hunting. Principally through the efforts of Safari Club International in conjunction with the assistance of the Ambassador of Tajikistan to the United States, sheep sport hunting was resumed in 2010. It was also in the summer of 2010 that SCI Foundation began funding a wild sheep monitoring program in the Pamirs. Wildlife population monitoring should be conducted yearly, particularly in hunted populations, to determine hunting impacts on population dynamics and to develop management plans that incorporate a sustainable harvest quota.
Wild sheep in the Pamirs of Tajikistan are healthy and flourishing. Surveys conducted during the summer and winters of 2010 through summer of 2012 revealed that the population is stable if not increasing. Lamb: female ratios have varied from 38-62 lambs per 100 females in the winter and 58-62 lambs per 100 ewes in summer. The winter data indicate a high lamb survival. In North America, the average Dall sheep lambing rate recorded in a long-term study was 37 lambs: 100 ewes. The highest lambing mortality usually occurs within a month after birth, in most cases due to predation. Mortality rates can be high, 50 to 60% soon after birth but such high mortality is usually due to a catastrophic event such as a disease outbreak, exceptionally cold weather or a heavy snow storm. The lambing ratio or lambing rate is important as an indicator of population recruitment and effect reproduction because it measures the birth rate and early survival of lambs.
Survival of lambs to yearling age is highly variable. Yearling: females ratios have varied from 23 yearlings: 100 ewes in the winter to 47: 100 ewes in the summer. In comparison, the long-term yearling: ewe ratio in Dall sheep herds was 21: 100 but in one study, but ratios ranged from 34 to 53: 100 ewes. A minimum yearling: ewe ratio of 20: 100 is required to maintain a stable population in a low quality population a and a population with a high mortality of young animals requires a yearling: ewe ratio of about 40: 100. Once lambs reach yearling age, mortality usually does not exceed 10%.
Adult male: adult female ratios during winter have varied from 48 to 61 males: 100 ewes. A typical population consists of 30% males and 50% females. In a winter survey in the Rangkul Pamir area alone, 60% of all males observed were adults (5 years and older) and of those that could be classified, 249 were adult males. No more than 12 males are removed from this population each year. There are probably thousands of trophy males in the Tajikistan Pamirs. Considering that only about 60 males are removed from the population each year, the number removed are minimal and do not negatively affect the availability of trophy males.
The population in the Tajikistan Pamir region is in good health due to the absence of competition with domestic animals and adequate forage production that provides the energy requirements for the maintenance and growth of lambs and the healthy condition of ewes. The absence of domestic animals in some areas during the entire year and the absence of domestic sheep in winter pastures is a great benefit to the wild sheep population. The absence of domestic sheep also eliminates human disturbance by pastoralists and their dogs. The hunting concession managers also regularly patrol their areas and greatly curtail illegal hunting.
Tajikistan has the largest concentration of wild sheep in the world. The wild sheep population is stable or perhaps increasing. The data clearly show that there is not a selective overexploitation of adult males and the numbers of males available far exceed the number removed. Tajikistan is an exemplary model for wild sheep management in Asia. The establishment of game management areas that provide trophy animals have ensured the survival of wild sheep and other mountain wildlife. In these areas, wild sheep are protected from illegal hunting and domestic sheep are managed in coordination with wild sheep to avoid overexploitation of the forage resource. Tajikistan is also an example of how trophy hunting may be the best economic incentive to initiate wildlife conservation programs in some countries because it affords an immediate income with minimum investment. It can have positive economic, sociocultural, and wildlife conservation effects, especially if it is conducted in a sustainable manner.