Kyrgyz for Conservation

Here I find myself in Kyrgyzstan. You may be asking yourself, “Is that a country?” or “Is it part of Russia?” or “What did you say? Kyrokistani?”…. yes I have received all of the comments before. So let’s clarify. Kyrgyzstan is a country located in Central Asia. It  borders western China, southern Kazakhstan, eastern Uzbekistan, and northern Tajikistan. The people here are called Kyrgyz and they speak Kyrgyz language. Many also speak fluently in Russian because they were apart of the Soviet Union until its collapse in 1991. Hence, they have many Russian influences in their culture, education, and politics. But Kyrgyzstan is the first country in Central Asia to fight for a truly democratic society. In the past 20 years, they underwent two revolutions for the sake of democracy. And their efforts have succeeded. In October of 2017, the Kyrgyz Republic had their first presidential elections in which they weren’t sure who would be the winner. Following the elections, they had their first peaceful transfer of power between presidents.

Kyrgyzstan is truly a gem in this part of the world. More than 80% of the landscape is occupied by mountains. They consider themselves nomadic because they traditionally roamed the mountains of Central Asia to find feeding grounds for their livestock. They lived in yurts and relied heavily on horses. They hunted and fished. They used animal parts and furs to make clothing, tools, and handicrafts. They even had time to play enthralling games such as Kok-Boru and Oodarysh. During the 70 year reign of the Soviet Union, the Kyrgyz people were heavily suppressed culturally, but they clung tightly to their roots. Now, they are seeking to reestablish their heritage in a modern world and vibrantly express their traditions for all the world to see. They have hosted the World Nomad Games since its beginning in 2014. Through this international sports event, countries come to compete in traditional nomadic games and celebrate nomadic lifestyles. You can see a bit of the brilliant chaos in this promotional video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WwpdPRzBJ44.

So I hope you are thinking, “Wow this sounds like a really cool place!” but you may also be asking, “Why Kyrgyzstan?”

I guess I should talk a little bit of what drew me to this place at this time in my life. At the University of Montana, I am studying Resource Conservation with a focus in Wildlife Biology. Since the beginning of my studies, I have been fascinated by Asiatic wildlife. In particular cats. Whether it was Amur tigers in eastern Russian or snow leopards in Central Asia, I knew I wanted to go to a place where I could work on cat conservation. When I saw pictures of the landscape and wildlife of Kyrgyzstan, I decided there was no better place for me to go. My global theme for GLI is Natural Resources and Sustainability and my challenge is the preservation of ecosystems and biodiversity. In Central Asia, populations of snow leopards and their prey species (ibex, argali, markhor) are negatively affected by illegal hunting, aka poaching. In recent years, governments and organizations such as Panthera have been working against poaching by developing and supporting community-based conservancies. When managed correctly, these conservancies can provide many opportunities for members in the community through land and wildlife management, eco-tourism, and legal hunting. In the Murghab Conservancy of Tajikistan, up to 20 rangers and guides are hired during high hunting and tourist season. A new project in the region is even teaching women how to be hunting and hiking guides.

In these communities, the locals take immense pride in their land and wildlife. I was surprised to learn that most of the rangers in these conservancies were once poachers. When they realized the immense damage they were having on wildlife populations, they decided to team up with organizations and help restore populations. Since then, they have overcome tremendous obstacles to turn around the fates of certain populations.

I can confidently say positive conservation movements are occurring throughout Central Asia. Yet, many problems continue to exist as well, especially in poorly managed conservancies. So much work still needs to be done. I am very lucky to have the opportunity to volunteer with the organization Panthera. While working alongside their incredible team, I am learning how they help develop community-based conservation in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The most valuable information I have learned thus far is that the locals are the smartest conservationists for their areas. They may not have degrees in wildlife biology or resource management, but they have strong connections to the land and the way it works. They have lived off it for the past several thousand years. If we want to succeed in properly managing land and wildlife, we must work tightly with the people who live off it and affect it.

I am excited to see where these experiences take me. I would love to come back to Central Asia after I finish my degree and gain more experience in land and wildlife management in the states. My most taunting questions at the moment are the following:

  1. How are ecotourism and legal hunting positively affecting conservation here? How are they negatively affecting conservation?
  2. Why do some community-based conservancies work really well? Why are some struggling?
  3. How do we get the general public more involved in this field so they understand why balanced ecosystems is vitally important for our future world?

I would love to hear your thoughts and comments so don’t hesitate to get in touch with me. And don’t forget to look through the pictures below!

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Early autumn in a mountain valley near Lake Issyk-Kul. Typically rangers let their livestock free-range during the day and bring them into corrals at night.

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A large yurt near the historic sight Tash Rabat. A cat perches on the top, overlooking his large kingdom.

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A Marco Polo sheep skull. Marco Polo are the largest subspecies of argali and the largest mountain sheep in the world.

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Piled in a Toyota Landrover on our search for argali and ibex. The women in the back are training to be rangers and guides for the Murghab Conservancy.

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Alichur village in Tajikistan which helps runs the Murghab conservancy.

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Here you can see the Tien Shan mountain range. It stretches the 533 mile border between Kyrgyzstan and China. You can also see the border fence.

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On the top of the hill stands a markhor, This animal is unique to certain regions of Tajikistan.

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