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 to disappear.

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 salt water.

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 regulations.

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 do?

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 Union.

© , , Дашогуз-Ашхабад, Туркменистан, 2003 ::