Commercial Hunting Endangers Rare Central Asian Sheep Species: Wildlife researchers say Marco Polo sheep under threat of extinction

Published 2008-12-12
Edited by Rich Bowden

Wildlife researchers are concerned a rare sub-species of Central Asian sheep known as Marco Polo sheep (Ovis ammon polii) is under threat of extinction because of widespread commercial hunting in Central Asian states such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Found in the Pamir Mountains, on the border region of China, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan, and named after the famed traveler Marco Polo who encountered them on his journeys in the region, experts estimate that only a fraction of the original number of the species remain. The species’ decline can be linked to regional political and economic factors and the activities of several commercial hunting businesses, they say.

The hunting operators have used the Marco Polo sheep as a lucrative commercial opportunity and have in the process, driven the sheep to the edge of extinction. According to George Schaller, vice president of the Science and Exploration Program of the Wildlife Conservation Society, the species can now be numbered to little more than 10,000.

The population of Marco Polo sheep has declined rapidly in Central Asia since 1980 due to political disturbances and economical factors in the region. This includes a long, unresolved war in Afghanistan which acts as an important habitat for these species.

However trophy hunters originating mostly from western Europe and North America, have shown great interest in signing up for Marco Polo sheep hunting adventures, ignoring the species’ endangered status.

Rick Herscher, owner and operator of Alaska Hunting Safaris in Anchorage, AK, describes hunting for the Marco Polo sheep as an adventure and joyful experience. The company runs hunts in the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan for a fee of US$35,000 and Herscher said in a telephone conversation that authorities in Central Asian states can be notoriously corrupt where the issuing of a license for hunting can be a gold mine.

It is alleged that the corruption of officials in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, along with the increasing demand of trophy hunters around the world, is the main factor in the rapid development of the commercial hunting of the iconic sheep. Despite the fact that Marco Polo sheep have been officially recognized by the Agency of the Environment Protection of Kyrgyzstan as an endangered species, the hunting of the sheep continues to be legal in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Herscher said that with limited hunting permits available, planning on the safaris begins one year prior to the actual hunt. The official permit fee for hunting on Marco Polo sheep in Kyrgyzstan‘s Environment Government Agency is $6.80 per sheep and hunters take the opportunity to acquire them in the time available.

Unfortunately the plight of the Marco Polo sheep serves only to remind how we as a human society need to understand better how important the issue of conserving and protecting endangered species such as the Marco Polo sheep is for the future of our planet. Even in the 21st century it appears we are still unable to protect our endangered fauna for the benefit of future generations. History teaches us that what we lose will not return and that acting now is our only chance for preservation.

The example of the Marco Polo sheep is salient as we know that the world will lose this unique species if nothing is done to prevent irresponsible hunting in the abovementioned Central Asian states. Wealthy trophy hunters from around the globe, who apparently know that this species is under threat of extinction, appear to suffer no remorse.

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