Fantastic Asia, a Bishkek-based travel company, has an English-language website that offers high-priced hunting excursions for foreigners. The company's director-general, Artem Niuhalov, tells RFE/RL Western hunters are drawn by Central Asia’s many indigenous species.
"They come for the unique species that we have here," Niuhalov says. "Marco Polo sheep live only in Central Asia; the Mid-Asian ibex also. As for birds, local subspecies are also unique and attract collectors. All the hunters, after killing an animal, have their trophy -- the skin and skull -- salted. They take it back to their home countries. Then they mount it into a nice-looking sheep or ibex."
A 2002 report by the wildlife trade-monitoring network TRAFFIC estimated that the main destination country for foreign hunters in Central Asia was Kazakhstan, with at least 2,000 visitors a year. Kyrgyzstan came in a distant second, with just over 100 hunters. In smaller numbers, hunters also traveled to Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
Only a few of the visitors had the privilege of hunting the Marco Polo sheep or Mid-Asian ibex. The hunting of such animals is restricted, and governments impose high trophy fees for each animal killed.
Niuhalov says authorities also establish annual quotas.
“Our government issues about 60 licenses for Marco Polo sheep a year to be hunted in Kyrgyzstan." Niuhalov says. "These licenses are distributed between different outfitters and sold to clients."
Fantastic Asia's entire 12-day sheep-hunting excursion costs $17,000. Of that, $7,500 covers the trophy fee for a single Marco Polo.
In Central Asia, the trophy fee goes directly to the government budget. Authorities are expected to use the money for wildlife management and conservation programs.
There is little information, however, on how much is actually spent on such programs. Niuhalov complains that the Kyrgyz government does very little in that respect.
“It's not right, because with this money the government doesn't actually do much for protecting wildlife or building roads, nothing," Niuhalov says. "It’s only the outfitters [the companies that provide hunting tours] that do that.”
Doris Hofer, a preservation consultant based in Germany, says that’s a pity. She says that trophy hunting can effectively contribute to wildlife preservation if its revenues are properly spent on management, protection, and habitat conservation.
Hofer stresses that trophy hunting makes wildlife economically important, and can help decrease poaching by involving local communities in management and conservation projects.
“No, I do not think trophy hunting is a threat to wildlife," Hofer says. "The fact that [foreign] hunters are interested in [your] wildlife sets a focus on animals. So it helps conservation. In some regions poaching by local communities may be a much bigger threat than [official] tourist hunters who pay.”
Stephanie Theile, who works for the TRAFFIC program in London, says Pakistan’s Torghar Conservation Project could serve as a model for conservation initiatives in Central Asia.
In 1985, a group of volunteers on tribal lands in northwest Baluchistan initiated a project to control the illegal hunting of the Markhor goat and Urial sheep, which had resulted in marked decreases in the two species.
Ten years later, an NGO was formed to administer the project. Using revenue from the sale of a small number of trophy hunts, Theile says, local people were hired as wildlife guards.
“The local community has been brought quite closely in managing trophy hunting. Local people have been hired to become wildlife wardens, and they get a fixed salary paid from the money generated from the trophies. Through this carefully managed project [Markhor and Urial] populations have been increasing. Poaching [has] decreased among the [local] communities because people had an interest.”
In the first 10 years, the program generated about $460,000 from hunts for just 14 Markhor and 20 Urial. The populations of both species went up from 100 animals to about 1,800.