By Noor Agha Noori
Wakhan district, Badakhshan province – Counting sheep in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan Province may be difficult, but shooting them is no doubt easier when the weapon of choice is an AK-47.
The famed Marco Polo sheep, first described for the Western world by the 13th century Italian explorer, is considered one of the fastest and smartest of game animals. Its meat is delicious and the beautiful, rounded horns often grow from 140-160 centimeters.
Killing them is now prohibited.
For 18 years before the Russian invasion in 1979, hunting of the Marco Polo sheep was carefully regulated, with tourists and foreign hunters allowed only one gunshot at the animals, which stand almost a meter high and often weigh between 125 and 130 kilograms.
The sheep, known locally as nakhjipar, are found mostly in Badakhshan province, located along the far northeastern border with Tajikistan and including the narrow Wakhan Valley district that separates northern Pakistan from China.
How many Marco Polo sheep are there? According to a survey conducted by the Badakhshan Province Agriculture Department, there were 4,000 Marco Polo sheep in 1971. A survey completed this past May by the American-based Wild Conservation Society (WCS), using technically advanced camera traps at several locations in the Wakhan valleys, put that number at 1,500.
This is actually being touted as an environmental gain – in 2009, Dr. Mohammed Shafi, head of the veterinary division for the provincial agriculture department, estimated the population to be as low as 220 after a survey conducted in cooperation with WCS that relied mostly on captured photos, hoof prints and traces of sheep found by a combined team of six Afghan and foreign surveyors.
What is not debatable is the change in the culture of hunting Marco Polo sheep in the past 30 years.
From 1961 to 1978, rules for hunting Marco Polo sheep were administered by the country’s tourism departments.
Every year, hundreds of foreign tourists visited the Wakhan valleys, which meant thousands of dollars in guide fees and tax receipts for the impoverished region. Each foreign tourist was required to register at the Information and Culture Ministry office. According to office records, six officials named Abdullah, Said Ibrahim, Niamatullah, Nasruddin, Ali and Gohar Khan received monthly salaries of 1,200 afghanis (about $36 at today’s rates) and were responsible for accompanying foreign citizens until the end of their visit.
According to Abdullah, one of those six former officials who is now 60 and lives in Bokowi village in the Wakhan valleys, “Each tourist and foreign hunter was permitted to have only one shot at a Marco Polo sheep during their visit. If they missed, they didn’t have permission for a second shot.
“At that time a foreigner was paying $3,000 to $10,000 in exchange for a shot. Our most important duty was to safeguard and maintain Marco Polo sheep and snow leopards.”
Abdul Zahir, who resides in Panja village, says he began hunting professionally 40 years ago at the age of 16. He claims that after sheep were killed and the meat was either eaten or preserved, the skins and horns were smuggled illegally into Pakistan and sold for as much as 5,000 afghanis. “We were bringing back wheat from Pakistan with the money from the horn and the skin,” Zahir said.
According to Zahir, in the old days hunters used single-shot British-made rifles to hunt the sheep.
The Russian invasion brought with it the AK-47, which can fire dozens of bullets with one pull of a trigger. Profits have also multiplied. Zahir claims to have sold a Marco Polo sheepskin for 5,000 afghanis.
A three-month investigation by an IWPR reporter indicates that absence of oversight by government officials, along with poverty among local people, leads to illegal hunting of Marco Polo sheep without any fear of punishment.
According to current Afghan law, Marco Polo sheep are national property, and hunting and smuggling of sheep parts are prohibited under a decree issued by President Hamid Karzai, with penalties set at two months to two years in prison and a fine of up to 100,000 Afghanis.
Local officials in Badakhshan claim that most of the illegal hunting and smuggling of Marco Polo sheep is organized by Pakistani dealers based in the border province of Chitral. Ghulam Nabi Sarfaraz, head of the environment department for the province, said his personnel captured a Pakistani citizen last year near the Chitral border carrying a Marco Polo sheep that had been killed. He said the suspect was handed over to Afghan border police and that he has heard nothing about the incident since.
The struggle for the conservation of wildlife including Marco Polo sheep in Badakhshan gained ground after American WCS resumed activity in 2006, and other organizations, including the Aga Khan Foundation, began contributing to the effort.
WCS conservationist Anthony Simms said for the last four years his organization has employed 40 local young people as Civil Guards, which act as game wardens to protect Marco Polo sheep.
Abdul Sabir, one of the Civil Guards, said that every week they are divided into eight-member groups and go on patrols in areas apparently used for hunting and smuggling. “We are guarding (just like) police and don’t permit anyone to hunt Marco Polo sheep,” he said. The Civil Guards perform their tasks without weapons.
Wakhan District chief Sayed Feruz Shah says there are many illegal hunters and smugglers. He says illegal activity starts in the Broghil valley and stretches up to the Chinese border, an area 250 km long and 230 km wide. He admits the authorities cannot provide protection for such a vast territory.
“What could our government do with two policemen to cover a 250 km-long desert and mountain?” the chief asks.
He noted the installation of digital binoculars at high perches in the Pamir Mountains along with dozens of cameras put in place by WCS. But a veteran Wakhan Valley hunter who didn’t want to give his name said all the illegal hunters and smugglers know the locations of the cameras and hunt in other valleys instead.
According to district chief Sayed Feruz Shah, Wakhan has a population of 18,000 people and is largely controlled by only a few individuals – mostly large land owners whose influence over the hundreds of small settlements in the area is nearly absolute and who, according to local hunters, have a hand in the continued hunting on the sheep.
In interviews with IWPR, local hunters, Abdul Sabir, Abdullah and Abdul Zahir claim that each year a large number of Marco Polo sheep are hunted on the orders of Wakhan’s powerbrokers for meat, or to be served at elaborate picnics.
Mohammad Sadiq, Wakhan district security director for the last four years, said there are secret, dangerous people behind this hunting and smuggling, a so-called Marco Polo Mafia, intent on making money.
He said that last year a three-member group was caught with a Marco Polo sheep with an injured hoof. He wouldn’t name those captured hunters, but said his department obtained confessions in which the alleged smugglers asserted that the sheep was to be sent to a zoo in Islamabad.
“Before implementing the mission, the smugglers had received $100,000 from Pakistanis in advance,” Mohammad Sadiq said.
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