Saving the Marco Polo Sheep Using NASA Technology and Hunting

“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.”  (Lewis and Alpert 1997, Lovelock 2008, IUCN Species Survival Commission 2012).

SCI Foundation is proud of our longest running project in Asia, as it goes into its 7th year of conserving the Argali (Ovis ammon polii) or Marco Polo Sheep.  Among all sheep, the Argali has the longest horns and is the most prized by hunters.  The Argali also happens to live on the rooftop of the world, among the highest mountains on earth, in some of the most inhospitable habitat.  It is no surprise that Tajikistan is home to the largest population of Argali, since the country is 90% mountainous and rural with just 89 people per square mile.

            SCIF/ACF/WWF “The Present-Day Status of the Pamir Argali Populations” © 2002 (Left)/Stock Photo: (Right)

Because of its rugged mountains, Tajikistan’s habitat is more difficult to survey than many other types of terrain. Extreme weather and harsh terrain in a part of the world just 150 miles from mountains like Broad Peak and K2 are impossible to traverse by vehicle.  Faced with the difficulty of access, researchers relied on NASA’s Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) technology to accurately study Argali habitat.  Armed with space-age tools, the land could be more accurately modeled and studied than many other projects that take place in far more accessible climates and elevations.

Pamir Argali Survey_2002 antlers

SCIF/ACF/WWF “The Present-Day Status of the Pamir Argali Populations” © 2002

Wildlife conservation in Tajikistan relies on hunting concessions as well as responsible grazing management strategies.  Currently, the greatest threat to the Marco Polo sheep is a lack of vegetation due to overgrazing and irresponsible use of the land.  As domestic livestock grazing continues to require more of the grasslands during more and more of the year, the Argali are driven up into the mountains for longer periods of time.  Without proper vegetation in high altitudes, more human-wildlife conflict incidents occur when Argali enter grazing lands and are shot by shepherds.  Grazing also seriously degrades their habitat, which caused a decline between 2008 and 2013.

Pamir Argali Survey_2002 skeleton

            SCIF/ACF/WWF “The Present-Day Status of the Pamir Argali Populations” © 2002

It takes a different kind of hunter to pursue game that is found at an elevation higher than 13,000 feet.  Pursuing an Argali is more like mountaineering, since they are more likely to retreat uphill into mountains that test even seasoned mountain climbers.  As result, a single trophy sheep fetches $40,000 with as few as 45 permits issued each year.  The establishment of game management areas is far more profitable than domestic livestock herding.  The returns that can be had from a single Argali hunt have provided great incentives for their conservation, and hold the best potential to protect their habitat from encroachment by livestock herders.

SCIF/ACF/WWF “The Present-Day Status of the Pamir Argali Populations” © 2002

Researching the Argali has been going on for more than 100 years, and still the status of one of the most isolated species on earth remains unclear.  The continued monitoring of their status is extremely important since the Marco Polo sheep is a barometer of environmental conditions in the fragile Alpine habitat of Tajikistan and the surrounding region.  Gradually winters have become longer and drier while summers contain long-lasting heat waves causing the subterranean permafrost to melt.  Combined with glacial melt, wetlands are drying out and turning to desert while severe flooding and erosion is causing Alpine desert dwelling people to move up into Argali habitat.  Without any natural predators, the Argali’s primary threat is poaching and herding which is becoming more frequent due to the dwindling Alpine grassland.  SCI Foundation and its partners are helping the local communities realize the benefit from responsible conservation and hunting of the most prized sheep species on earth.  Making the turn away from herding and competing with the Argali to conserving and managing their numbers is a long term but achievable goal.