Walking With Animals

Feb. 21, 2018, 3:28 p.m.

Note: This is a shortened and annotated version of an Out of Eden Walk dispatch. To read the full dispatch, click here.

Mahan Atabaev, the leader of the herding community of Alichur, Tajikistan, has turned from poacher to conservationist. (Photograph by Paul Salopek)

...As I plod the continents from Africa through the Middle East and on to Central Asia, en route to my walk’s finish line at the tip of South America, I have witnessed at boot level a planet utterly transformed to suit the needs of Homo sapiens, not snow leopards or salamanders. Mile after slow mile, I have seen wild habitats shunted aside by roads, factories, industrial farming, and exploding megacities. Windblown trash has been nearly inescapable, even in the remotest stretches of my walk…

...This is why the small but significant counter revolution I encountered while walking in Central Asia is heartening: It is a green movement led by ordinary people, by shepherds, teachers, and farmers, and not by governments or global media campaigns…

...“See them?”

It is Mahan Atabaev: skinny, wind-burned, a pastoralist in a baseball cap. He stands in a chilly alpine dawn, urging me look through a spotting scope.

The scope is trained on a valley high in the Pamir range of Tajikistan. I crouch to peek, and what I see is this: animals that appear to be carved from light. They literally shine. They graze on the steep mountainside, glowing pale in the sunrise, perfect in every detail. They are wild Marco Polo sheep. A big ram, easily weighing hundreds of pounds, carries a crown of spiral of horns. Atabaev grins happily at me…

...“We missed our animals,” Atabaev tells me back in Alichur, his dust-blown village of ethnic Kyrgyz sheep and yak herders. “Our ancestors safeguarded the wildlife for us. Then we hunted it until it was all gone. Now we want it back.”...

...Over the past five years, the population of wild sheep in this rugged Central Asian valley has grown from zero to more than 70 magnificent animals. In fact, over the same period, the number of Marco Polos in the surrounding mountains has boomed 10-fold from just 50 to some 500. Ibex, a wild antelope, also have expanded their ranks. And local sightings of one of the world’s most elusive predators, snow leopards, have ticked up from zero to six cats….

Community conservation isn’t a new idea.

The concept was first tested decades ago in Africa, mainly to save endangered and charismatic species such as elephants from slaughter. The premise is simple: Reintegrate wild spaces—and the animals that live in them—back into the economies of local people. You won’t poach a rhino, the model predicts, if that rhino brings you and your village a concrete value such as tourism dollars, or game ranger jobs. In effect, nature becomes shared capital. It is “owned” by the community. A wild mountain and the ibex living on it are as prized as a power station or a herd of cows.

Community conservation has had its ups and downs. Management plans can be disrupted by greed. Wars and political upheaval have destroyed fragile community-run wildlife parks. But in two nations in Central Asia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the effort has taken promising root.

“I used to think conservation was only about animals,” says Tanya Rosen, a field biologist sharing community-based conservation methods in both countries for an American conservation group called Panthera, with support from the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative. “But 80 percent of my job is about people—about marketing, diplomacy, economics. After you take care of all that, the animals don’t need much help. Animals sort of take care of themselves.”...

...When I walked through Alichur, the village school and Panthera were co-hosting a wildlife camp for students. The children of shepherds drew wild creatures that only their grandparents had seen and that were prowling again in their mountains, back this time as partners in survival.