By Craig Boddington
In 1998, we drove from the capital of Tajikistan to the Pamir Mountains to hunt Marco Polo argali. In those days it was quite a journey. It was almost all gravel and there were multiple delays from avalanches. What passed for a road, wound endlessly along the Afghan border. Even then it was considered unsafe, and we did not travel at night. After getting unstuck from a failed river crossing, we spent the first night in a little village in the tall, steep Darwaz Mountains.
Our host had found a set of pick-up antlers. They were the first Bukharan markhor horns I’d ever seen. But at that time, hunting was impossible and virtually all markhor subspecies and populations were in serious trouble. I marveled at those horns, never imagining that someday markhor hunting would be possible. In 1998, just a few dozen Bukharan markhors remained. The species was hanging by a thread.
Earlier this year, we made that same journey to the Darwaz Mountains. This time it was just a five-hour drive and we whizzed along on blacktop. Our purpose was to hunt mid-Asian ibex, so the village of Zigar in the Darwaz was our destination, not a stopover. I was aware that Tajikistan had opened up hunting for Bukharan markhor, and that there were limited permits. But I didn’t realize until later on, that this was the exact same place where I marveled at those twisting horns 25 years ago.
Okay, I was jet-lagged and thinking slowly. The lights came on when we pulled into the two-story house that would serve as our ibex camp. There, beside the front door, was a marvelous set of twisting horns, a markhor killed by a snow leopard. We were a group of four, all except me were on their first Asian hunt and first ibex hunt. We all gaped at those marvelous horns and wondered if we just might actually see some markhors.
The amazing twist-horned markhors of Central Asia are the mountain hunter’s Holy Grail. There are six races of Capra falconeri scattered primarily in pockets of rough country across Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan. There are also populations remaining in northern India and between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Much of our historic knowledge of markhors came from British soldiers and explorers who encountered markhors in Afghanistan and would go up to the “hill country” of northern India in search of mountain game. Most of “northern India” has been Pakistan since 1948, and her “hills” include some of the tallest peaks in the world. Markhors don’t necessarily live in the highest mountains, but they like it rough and steep. Their rugged habitat is probably the only thing that has saved them.
Through most of the 20th century, they had little or no protection. Their numbers dwindled. As late as 1990, markhors existed only in remnant populations. This is still how we think of them, an elusive, almost mythical creature.
Partway through our ibex hunt, Hornady’s Neil Davies said, “I thought they were like unicorns.” Honestly, me too. I was certain we’d find the ibex we sought, but I doubted we’d actually see markhors.
We all saw plenty of ibex but, shockingly, we saw more markhors! Coming down from the top the first day, Leica’s Ryan Trenka reckoned he saw more than 100 markhors. The day after I got my ibex, we did some glassing along the Panj River bordering Afghanistan, and I’m sure we saw 75 markhors, all on the Tajikistan side. They were in scattered groups, some very high, others surprisingly low. From this distance, the magnificent twist-horned giants looked like shaggy, thick-horned kudu.
Once I got more of the story, it made sense that we saw more markhors than ibex. There are nearly twice as many markhors as ibex in this area. From tattered remnants, the local population of Bhukaran markhors have increased to between 700 and 800, which is a magnificent recovery. This population reflects a significant percentage of Bhukaran markhors in Tajikistan, and thus existing on native range anywhere in the world.
In 1991, Tajik hunter Ayub Mulloyorov began protecting markhors in his area. A few years later, he and his sons started an outfitting business — M-Sayod Tajikistan Hunting. Initially, they hunted ibex and wild boar. Their conservation efforts have been rewarded. Working with Tajik authorities, IUCN and CITES, for the past few years they have been able to market a handful of markhor permits and have produced successive SCI World Records.
Theirs is not the only village that has saved the markhor. Markhors live in some of Asia’s roughest and most remote corners, and all of the several notable recoveries have been based on localized community-based programs. Most famous, without question, is the Torghar Conservation Project in western Pakistan, which saved the Suleiman markhor from near-certain extinction. The Suleiman markhor is the smallest-bodied of the markhors, with straight horns that turn in the tightest twists. In good habitat and with strict protection, the markhor (like most wild goats) can be surprisingly prolific. Starting with fewer than 100 remaining in the Torghar Mountains, the Suleiman markhor recovered quickly and is now estimated at more than 3,000. It is the largest markhor population. Limited hunting resumed in the early 2000s.
Torghar’s stunning success has served as a model for similar community-based programs elsewhere in Pakistan. At the turn of the millennium, it seemed almost an impossible dream to hunt any markhor. Today, Astor, Kashmir and Suleiman markhors are hunted in Pakistan, with the Bukharan markhor in Tajikistan being the latest addition to huntable markhors. The Chiltan wild goat, considered a natural cross between Suleiman markhor and Sindh ibex, is protected, but recovering in Pakistan. The Kabul markhor still teeters on the brink. This markhor is primarily restricted to war-torn Afghanistan with little current data, although some remain on the Pakistan side in the vicinity of the Khyber Pass.
That’s an amazing turnaround in just 30 years. The local peoples who committed to eschew poaching and protect their markhors are responsible for this miracle. The international hunting community deserves much credit, too. Individual hunters and outfitters, as well as American, European, and international hunting and conservation groups, including SCI, continue to play important roles. We can all agree that the iconic markhor must be saved, but in remote Asian villages, survival trumps altruism. The bottom-line reason for the markhor miracle is the tremendous value we hunters place upon them. The sacrifice of a few older males is providing incentive — and employment — for entire villages.
In the few areas where markhors are currently hunted, quotas are extremely conservative, just a token harvest that maximizes value and incentive. Not all of us will hunt markhor, but as numbers and range increase, opportunity will increase.
In 2011, I was able to hunt a Suleiman markhor in the Torghar Hills. Without question, it was my ultimate mountain-hunting experience, something I never thought I would be able to do. I don’t plan to hunt another, and don’t need to; I had never expected to see another markhor in its natural habitat!
We got our ibex, but what a thrill to be glassing and suddenly pick up twist-horned wonders. I will never forget a group of nine males feeding along, all big, but at least one giant in the mix. It might be the next world record.