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Central Asia: Hunting Balancing Profit And Conservation

In Western Europe alone, some 6.5 million people hunt for sport. But comparatively little game remains in the industrialized Western part of the continent, and as a result, there has been a stampede of hunters in the last decade to newly available hunting areas in Eastern Europe, Eurasia, and Central Asia. Is this taking its toll on the Eastern environments, or are there local benefits to be reaped from this lucrative trade?

Prague, 27 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Hunters occupy a central role in the mythology of practically all societies. That's because buried deep in the collective consciousness is the knowledge that a successful hunt means the tribe will have food, will be able to survive. A good hunter, therefore, was in primitive times a figure of veneration for his skill and strength.

Modern hunters in the West have perhaps a more difficult task establishing their credentials. In our crowded world, the hunting season consists of having hordes of people besieging the woodlands and plains with much expensive equipment. Their quarry is no longer the bear and the wolf, those symbols of strength and cunning, but often much smaller animals and birds. And they are often viewed with suspicion or hostility by the non-hunting section of the population.

They still have something in common with their predecessors, however. Just as the lack of game drove the ancient hunters further afield, so does the protected status of bear, wolf, and antelope in Western Europe drive hunters -- at least those who can afford it -- ever further eastwards, into Eurasia and Central Asia.

And money is the key issue for those looking for hunting trophies. For instance, a successful safari into Central Asia in pursuit of Argali mountain sheep costs up to $50,000, with all the necessary license fees. An expedition into Pakistan for the elusive Markhor goat costs up to $40,000. That's big money in anyone's language, and those in favor of hunting point out the economic benefits to local communities, often poor and isolated, in the mountains of Central Asia.

The trouble is, the villagers and tribes who live among these game species end up getting comparatively little of this money. By the time the safari organizers, the travel agents, the outfitters, the airlines, and the middlemen get their cuts, only an estimated one-third of the total sum remains in the destination country of the hunt.

Roland Melisch, a German-based official with the wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic, told RFE/RL: "Actually it is a myth that so much money is spent in the destination country itself. It is not only the pro-hunting lobby which has conceived this as a myth, but it is also conservation groups who are active in the field of sustainable development."

Melisch said emotions often run very high between hunters and conservationists, and both sides need to realize that most of the money does not reach the hunt destination at all, and therefore cannot be used for instance for conservation projects.

Melisch said Traffic is calling for greater transparency in the costs of hunting safaris. Traffic is a private organization working to ensure that trade in wild plants and animals is not a threat to the preservation of nature. He continued, "More transparency is absolutely needed to look into the money flow, and into the reinvestment of funds into conservation and local development."

Some 100,000 West European hunters annually go eastwards, starting in those countries which are already European Union candidate members, such as Hungary, and continuing in a wide arc to China and Pakistan. They annually spend between $130 million and $190 million on their expeditions.

Melisch noted there is no need to automatically see hunting as a threat to the existence even of rare species, because much depends on good management practices. He gave as an ideal example the situation of the Markhor in Pakistan: "Out of, say, three or five [Markhors] which are bagged every year in Pakistan by trophy hunters who come from abroad, there is a high revenue coming into the area. It is not drained somewhere in Karachi or Islamabad, the capital, it is going right to the marginalized, the rural area, and this is what people in the area very much value." The Markhor is regarded by the local villagers as "their animal" and is thus carefully protected.

Traffic is also calling on hunting groups to do more to enhance this trend. Melisch suggested they set a series of criteria under which countries would be given a "green label" if they combine the elements of nature conservation with high development revenue for locals.

In Brussels, the Federation of Associations for Hunting and Conservation of the EU (FACE) says that the green-label idea is a good one. Deputy Secretary-General Ralf Eisenbeiss said hunting groups are "definitely" interested in the concept, on the basis that the local people and local companies should be integrated as much as possible into the safari process.

He acknowledged that many animal species are under pressure, but added: "They are certainly [under pressure], but that's exactly the point. If you can generate income or benefits for the local people by hunting on a regular basis as sustainable use, the more they will have an interest in conserving the species. Because it definitely can increase the benefit if you can achieve something like an eco-tourism which respects the traditions and conditions in the area where the hunting takes place."

Eisenbeiss said it is not a question of "globalization" in which "one size fits all." He said each region is different, and what is needed is, among other things, a certain diversity of travel agencies who can work with the local authorities, and people, and hunters.

One worry of conservationists is of course the element of corruption. How can one be sure that shooting licenses, particularly for rare species, are legally issued to reflect a scientifically assessed sustainable level of culling?

Everyone knows the hunt has its grisly side, whether that means using dynamite to kill fish indiscriminately, or even worse, hunting animals from helicopters with machine guns. And how many hunters of the wrong sort are still hungering for the pelts of the dwindling tiger and snow leopard?

"The right way to approach that is to work closely with the [hunting] associations in those countries to develop a code of good conduct, together with the travel agencies, with the hunters, with the guides, for example, who have a crucial importance in that whole scheme, and you have to make it clear to these people where the benefits are in the long term," Eisenbeiss said.

Eisenbeiss said there are always "black sheep" among authorities and guides, but that the problem should not be over exaggerated. He said FACE and other hunting associations are now drawing up a code of good conduct which will cover hunters from the EU members, the EU candidate countries, and Council of Europe countries, with a view to establishing a network of cooperating travel agencies. This code, he said, will be a good step forward.