THE VANISHING WILDLIFE OF TURKMENISTAN
by Andrei Zatoka
In 1961 a zoologist at the Dashkhovuz
epidemiology station, nicknamed "King of the Desert,"
bet his friends he could shoot 100 hares in one night from the window
of a car driven around the ruins of the settlement of Shaxshenem.
He won his bet. His record is barbaric, but it also illustrates
how numerous the animals once were. Today, 30 years later, one could
bag only three to five hares around Shaxshenem.
Another desert inhabitant that has always
attracted hunters is the djeiran, a type of wild sheep. Once plentiful
in the region, the djeiran has become an endangered species. In
1967-68, a cartographic expedition brought workers with powerful
automobiles, plenty of gas and high-powered rifles to the area.
The geodesic expedition shot the djeiran
by the thousands, carrying off the carcasses by the truckload to
be exchanged for vodka and food at nearby state farms. The state
farms, in turn, sold the meat to the government, calling it sheep.
During the Soviet era, the Turanski tiger, brown bear and cheetah
disappeared forever from Turkmenistan. The leopard, karakal, buharski
deer, striped hyena and turach are on the verge of extinction. Many
formerly common species have been reduced by hundreds, in some cases,
thousands. It's not hard to understand why. The forests on the floodplain
of the Amu-Darya River have disappeared, depriving the tiger and
the deer of their natural habitats; uncontrolled hunting has caused
the decline of hoofed mammals and large birds. Now, as their food
supply shrinks, large carnivores and birds of prey have also begun
The desert environment creates ideal
conditions for poaching. Nighttime hunts from automobiles are a
particularly awful traditionQanimals, blinded by headlights, become
easy targets even for a bad shot. Motorcycle riders do not even
have to carry a weapon; they can chase an animal along the sands
until it falls dead from exhaustion. Wild sheep and goats are easy
to ambush at drinking holes. The animals that evade water holes
out of fear of man can die of thirst or from drinking excessively
Several hundred djeiran and kulan, a
kind of ungulate animals, died this way in the Badhizkii nature
reserve in 1983.
Unfortunately, the fact that a species has become endangered does
not protect it from the hunter's gun. In small shepherd villages
live hunting RspecialistsS who are prepared to track and shoot the
last remaining djeiran.
What about the State Nature Protection Agency? What has it been
doing to catch poachers and create the conditions for the recovery
of animal populations?
In the past 10 years, government ecology
organizations have reorganized themselves several times. Officials
charged with nature protection in both local and headquarters offices
changed repeatedly, leading to other staff changes down the line.
Enforcement has been sorely undermined by the lack of stability.
According to the scientific researchers,
who until recently were the most stable element in the nature reserve
system, most of the park rangers ignored even the basic hunting
Half of the rangers became poachers
themselves, reasoning that since they were responsible for the animals,
the animals belonged to them. Rangers often allowed poachers to
bribe their way out of custody or simply dropped the charges if
the poacher happened to be a relative or friend. There are no more
than 20 honest rangers in the nature reserve system of Turkmenistan.
They are legendary for their integrity and seem very odd to most
people since the government does not actively combat poaching. Miserable
wages, hard work, bad transportation and inadequate weapons and
equipment scare away qualified workers. Those who agree to these
conditions generally supplement their income in other ways, by cultivating
melons, raising silkworms or "squeezing" poachers. As
a rule, rangers don't prosecute the biggest offenders, who tend
to be rich and powerful. Taking on such people requires bravery
and conviction since prosecuting them would jeopardize the ranger's
own life. In the summer of 1992, for instance, the
Dashkhovuz Ecology Club, a local nongovernmental group, offered
a large reward to any ranger inspector who apprehended a djeiran
poacher. No ranger has yet come forward for a reward.
Local conditions also encourage poaching,
especially the shortage of meat and the high prices it commands.
Furthermore, the opening of the country's borders for trade has
created a demand for high-priced animal products, increasing the
pressure on certain animal populations. Inflation has entirely undercut
the system of finesQnever large, they are now ridiculously small.
A pair of antelope horns may be valued by traders at $30-$50, while
the fine for poaching the animal will no more than $5. A year ago
the "cost" of a cobra was 100 rubles (around two dollars
at the time) while although just one milking of a cobra's venom
yields a product worth $150-$300.
While the government looks the other
way, poaching is flourishing. Nature protection agencies are being
scaled down. Instead of being subsidized, nature reserves are losing
their land holdings to state farms. What, in this situation, are
people who dream of the restoration of the cheetah and tiger to
First of all, they must find each other
and join forces. The laws of Turkmenistan allow the formation of
non-governmental organizations, and the first such organization
has been formed in the Dashkhovuz region. According to the charter
of the Dashkhovuz Ecological Club, the group may form an independent
enforcement effort in the battle against poaching. Private rangers
do not have the right to carry arms, but members of the Druzhini,
or student nature protection clubs, who didn't carry guns, caught
poachers better than many governmental inspectors who did. We are
seeking people we can train as rangers who will defend wildlife
for its own sake, not for money. We do need money, however, to purchase
vehicles, protective items and communication equipment.
We seek financial support from foundations
and businesses interested in supporting environmental protection.
Officials may well try to block our activities to preserve their
power. Therefore, our first order of business must be to communicate
our goals, to raise public consciousness, persuading people to look
on poachers as criminals who are destroying their children's future.
A small shepherd's village, Kamishli,
sits in the very center of the Kara-Kum desert. Durdi-Aga, a wise
and respected leader, lived in Kamishli. He told his hunters: "Whoever
kills a djeiran is cursed." The people listened to him, and
his commandment was stronger than any state law or government inspector.
People like Durdi-Aga still have authority with the native people
of Turkmenistan. In them and their strength lies our hope to save
the country's disappearing wildlife.
Andrei Zatoka worked as a scientific
researcher in the Kaplankirskii nature reserve from 1982 to 1992.
In 1986 he was wounded trying to stop armed poachers and in 1989
ran for deputy of the regional council as a green candidate, losing
by a narrow margin. He was fired from his job in 1992 by order of
the chairman of the State Nature Protection Committee and is now
working as a computer programmer. He is a founder of the Dashkhovuz
Ecology Club and a member of the Council of the Socio-Ecological