This week SCI Foundation is proud to present a Q & A session with one of our research partners in the field. Raul Valdez of the New Mexico State University Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Ecology took time out of his busy schedule in Tajikistan where he is currently conducting an Argali Sheep survey. Below are his answers and his professional opinion of the future of sustainable management of the Marco Polo (argali) sheep.
What was the status of Argali Sheep and wildlife in Tajikistan prior to beginning your research?
Past Marco Polo sheep (MPS) surveys in and near our study area, prior to the initiation of the SCI Foundation-sponsored surveys in 2010, indicate that wild sheep had undergone a population decline, perhaps beginning in the 1940s. Sheep densities were significantly lower than present in our study area based on surveys conducted in 1995, 2003, and 2005. Sheep in areas without sport hunting continue to occur in low densities over large unprotected areas of the Pamirs, due to habitat degradation caused by overstocking with domestic animals (sheep, goats, yaks), and illegal hunting by community members and sheep herders. Local people must benefit from native flora and fauna and be involved in their management, otherwise biodiversity declines. Human-dominated landscapes are essential in conserving wildlife.
What is the perception among local communities of wildlife and sustainable use hunting in Tajikistan?
The perception among local communities relative to wildlife and sustainable use hunting in Tajikistan is becoming increasingly favorable, particularly in areas where sport hunting enterprises exist. Trophy hunting in the Pamirs was initiated in 1987, but was then in remote areas. Because of the high value of trophy hunts, MPS hunting spread to other areas and communities became aware of the commodity value of wildlife. This incentivized community members to participate in wildlife conservation programs, and to protect sheep against illegal hunting.
Explain the hunting policies in Tajikistan before and after your research results and population data was submitted to the government. How did the project contribute to the opening of Argali sheep hunting and what was that process like?
Hunting in the Tajikistan was initiated in 1987 by an American outfitter under the auspices of Intourist; the government agency responsible for tourism in the former Soviet Union. After independence in 1991, Tajikistan initiated its own hunting program. However, a controversy developed over the number of MPS rams harvested, when some conservation groups questioned the sustainability of continued hunting. Political pressure exerted by these groups closed hunting during the 2009/2010 season, until a survey conducted at that period revealed a minimum population of 25,000 sheep in a wide area of the Pamirs. Although the survey only included 36% of the total area of sheep distribution, Tajikistan probably supports the largest argali population in all of Asia.
How has SCI Foundation been involved? How important has our support been to the success of your project and wild sheep conservation in Tajikistan?
A delegation representing SCI and SCIF met with top officials of Tajikistan in summer, 2010, and presented the survey results of previous years, which clearly showed that the population had increased. During the discussions, it was obvious that the government had been heavily influenced by anti-hunting propaganda.
Tell us about the project now. What kind of work is ongoing and what are the next steps?
Wildlife management requires good knowledge of population size, composition, and distribution, and of ecological determinants of population performance. Prior to the initiation of our project, we had a limited picture of MPS population abundance and structure. Also, the population had not been monitored consistently. We have accumulated sufficient ecological knowledge that has enabled us to determine that the MPS population is in a healthy condition. The major finding of our annual surveys is that the population consists of about 8,000 MPS, and it has maintained a high productivity based on the lamb/ewe ratios determined during summer surveys.
What has been the major findings of the project and what is the greater significance of your research results?
The major effort of the project continues to be annual surveys to obtain abundance and population structure data. We have applied innovative habitat suitability modeling to predict summer and winter suitable habitats. This has enabled us to identify the factors that influence or limit habitat suitability. We will continue to develop more refined habitat suitability models and conduct field work on habitat condition.
What is the current quota for Argali sheep in Tajikistan and how does the quota-setting system work? Who is involved? How is your science used?
Approximately 100 MPS are harvested each year on the Tajikistan Pamirs in the two-combined major hunting concession areas (50 males in each area per year). This is a quota that has been imposed by the hunting concession owners themselves, and is a conservative quota of harvested sheep. In one concession area surveyed annually, the harvest of 45 rams is likely much less than the previous annual harvest of 20% to 25% of trophy-sized rams prior to the hunting season recommended for wild sheep populations. This is also borne out by the continued high quality of trophy rams harvested annually and the large number of adult MPS observed each year.
How many total Argali have been harvested in Tajikistan by international hunters since the reopening of hunting?
Since the reopening of the 2010/2011 hunting season, approximately 600 rams have been harvested in Tajikistan.
What does the future look like for Argali Sheep, sustainable use, and wildlife conservation in Tajikistan and elsewhere in Central Asia?
I am optimistic about the future of the argali population in Tajikistan, if hunting remains legally permissible and is encouraged by the federal government. (I am hesitant to discuss argali sheep status in other countries because of my limited knowledge). Hunting is an important wildlife conservation tool because the benefits include generation of income in areas where ecotourism is not available, reduction of illegal hunting, and high revenue yield per client with minimal environmental effects. Equally important is that hunting is compatible with other forms of land use, such as livestock production, the main source of income in the Pamirs, fire fuel extraction, and ecotourism when properly managed. Hunting can create monetary incentives to sustain and improve wildlife populations and their habitat, which has been the case with the Pamirs of Tajikistan.
How can SCI Foundation continue to engage in this work and what are the next steps in the region for wild sheep research and management?
It is essential that SCI Foundation continue funding wild sheep conservation and management in central Asia. Without that support, there would not be a continued MPS study in central Asia, and lack of data to scientifically substantiate the MPS hunting program. Much still needs to be learned to develop a comprehensive sport hunting management plan that incorporates ecological knowledge of the fauna and vegetation.
SCI Foundation has been at the forefront of sponsoring MPS research. It is the only NGO that has sponsored long-term research on argali in Asia.