Knowing as much as possible about Argali sheep and their habitat is an extremely important factor in both hunting and conserving them. The Marco Polo Argali or sheep inhabit one of the most spectacular areas of the world, a highland area in central Asia known as the ‘roof of the world’. SCI Foundation has been partnering with the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Ecology at New Mexico State University since 2010 to study what is perhaps the most famous big game species in Asia. Among hunters, especially sheep hunters, this prized animal remained almost unknown until the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1991. In 1993, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the several subspecies of argali as endangered in most countries, but in the countries where Marco Polo argali occur, they were listed as threatened in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The only thing known for certain was that we didn’t know enough about this valuable species. There was an urgent need for population studies.
(Photo courtesy of: Tablas Hoeck. Savnob Village, Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, Pamir, Tajikistan June 2003)
SCI Foundation is continuing to support cutting edge work in the southern Pamir Region of eastern Tajikistan, one of the primary strongholds for Argali sheep. This ecosystem stretches from the western tip of China to the northern stretches of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Situated at an elevation between 13,000 and 24,000 feet, this high alpine environment was once part of the Silk Road and through which Marco Polo himself traveled. Marco Polo reported that that their horns were so long local people could build a fence with them. It wasn’t until the new millennium in 2001 that factual surveys and studies of this mythical species could be initiated.
(Winter habitat probability maps for the eastern Tajikistan Pamirs derived from five species distribution models: (a) BRT=Boosted Regression Tree, (b) GLM=Generalized Linear Model, (c) MARS=Multivariate Adaptive Regression Splines, (d) Maxent, and (e) RF=Random Forest, Areas near gentler slopes show high probability values (0 to 20 degrees Celsius) for winter habitat suitability.)
(Summer habitat probability maps for the eastern Tajikistan Pamirs derived from five species distribution models: (a) BRT=Boosted Regression Tree, (b) GLM=Generalized Linear Model, (c) MARS=Multivariate Adaptive Regression Splines, (d) Maxent, and (e) RF=Random Forest, Regions near riparian areas show high probability values for summer habitat suitability.)
As SCI Foundation’s oldest project in Asia, recent published reports have yielded the most accurate studies of population status, and winter and summer habitat use by Marco Polo argali. Relative to numbers, there are over 25,000 in the Tajikistan Pamirs, which now supports more argali than any other country. Relative to habitat use during winter, male and female argali were mostly recorded near gentler, and the warmer, south-facing slopes, and between elevations of 13,800 to 14,100 feet, and thus avoided the higher, colder elevations where snow accumulates. During summer, females were recorded near small streams where there was abundant vegetation growth. At that time of the year, adult males probably occupy higher, cooler habitats.
SCI Foundation is one of only a handful of organizations dedicated to uncovering how many currently exist and what can be done to sustainably manage this Asian species. Local hunting concession managers and communities will continue to benefit from the revenue generated from the hunters who are willing to pay for the opportunity to hunt this trophy wild sheep. The more input hunter conservationists and those who live with these widely coveted species have, the more real change can take place to improve the fragile alpine habitat. As our researcher in the field, Raul Valdez, stated during the early years of this project, “Tajikistan is also an example of how trophy hunting may be the best economic incentive to initiate wildlife conservation programs in some countries because it affords an immediate income with minimum investment.”
Publications resulting from SCIF-sponsored research:
R. Valdez, S. Michel, A. Subbotin and D. Klich. 2016. Status and population structure of a hunted population of Marco Polo Argali Ovis ammon polii (Cetartiodactyla, Bovidae) in southeastern Tajikistan. Mammalia 80:41-57.
Salas, A. L. R., R. Valdez, and K. G. Boykin. 2015. Geographic layers as landscape drivers for the Marco Polo argali habitat in the southeastern Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan. ISPRS International Journal of Geo-Information 4:2094-2108.
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