1 December 2014
CMS COP11 Shines Spotlight on Conservation in Central Asia
Photo by Tanya Rosen
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One of the important outcomes of the eleventh meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS COP11), was the adoption of the Central Asian Mammals Initiative (CAMI).

One of the important outcomes of the eleventh meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS COP11) was the adoption of the Central Asian Mammals Initiative (CAMI), an innovative and comprehensive framework for the conservation of 15 species of Central Asian mammals, including the iconic and threatened snow leopard, argali sheep, saiga antelope, Asiatic wild ass and the Asiatic cheetah.[1]

The CAMI is an opportunity to bring attention and resources to the plight of these species. As described in the short booklet ‘Central Asian Mammals Initiative: Saving the Last Migrations,’ many of the species in focus are under severe duress from threats such as habitat degradation, human-wildlife conflict, poaching and illegal wildlife trade.[2]

Outlining Central Threats

Human-wildlife conflict is one of the major causes of mortality for snow leopards and the Asiatic cheetah. The Asiatic cheetah once extended across the Middle East, Central Asia, north into southern Kazakhstan, and southeast into India. Today, only a small population of 70-110 remains, in Iran. Herders in Iran hunt cheetahs because of the perceived threat that they pose to livestock. Similarly, across much of the range, snow leopards are killed in retaliation for attacking livestock, with herders selling the trapped animals and/or their parts to recoup the value of the animals they have lost.

Poaching and illegal trade are a particularly daunting challenge for the conservation of the snow leopard and the argali. The significant resources, public outreach and momentum to address poaching and illegal wildlife trade in Africa and South East Asia have not extended to Central Asia. Thus, argali and snow leopards continue to be illegally hunted and then transported across borders.

While both species are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the snow leopard under Appendix I, which largely prohibits trade in this species, and the argali under Appendix II, which allows for regulated trade, mechanisms for effectively enforcing the Convention do not yet exist. Customs and border units are poorly equipped to detect the illegal transport of these protected species. While informal mechanisms may exist, such as informant networks that gather information on poaching and illegal trade, in some Central Asian countries, local and national enforcement agencies lack the skills and the capacity to use this knowledge and translate it into effective enforcement action. Corruption across relevant agencies also impacts the effectiveness of potential enforcement action. In addition to poaching, corruption, illegal trade and human-wildlife conflict, linear-infrastructure, such as border fences, roads and railways, also threaten a number of species in the region, namely saiga antelope, Asiatic wild ass, Mongolian gazelles and argali.

Countering Threats

The good news is that, as described in the CAMI booklet, there are a number of strategies available to address these threats. Of particular note is the emergence of community-based conservancies as an effective wildlife conservation tool. A particularly effective strategy has been found to be when people across one or more villages come together to stop poaching. Community-based conservancies in Pakistan and Tajikistan have successfully brought many endangered species back from the brink of extinction, like the markhor, argali and the snow leopard. Conservancies in Tajikistan, serving as another example, recently received the International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation (CIC) Markhor Award, which recognized a successful conservation project initiated by local hunters interested in projecting mountain ungulates. The Award showcases the effectiveness that community-based conservancies can have in Central Asia.

With regard to linear infrastructure ‘Guidelines to Address the Impact of Linear Infrastructure on Large Migratory Mammals‘ were adopted at CMS COP11. The Guidelines, commissioned by the CMS, funded by Switzerland and prepared by the Wildlife Conservation Society, offer best practices to maintain connectivity for wildlife in the face of increasing infrastructure development. They also encourage international, regional and national policy development that protects large mammal migratory species in the region.

Other tools proving to be effective include predator-proofing corrals to reduce conflict between livestock and large carnivores and the employment of sniffer dogs, already used to fight narcotic trafficking, to detect wildlife products. In Central Asia, the dogs can be an invaluable tool for targeting products derived from species like snow leopards, which are hard to identify. Conservation and security organizations are moving forward with this approach, with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) organizing an October 2014 regional workshop to build the capacity of customs authorities from Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the South Caucasus in using sniffer dogs to find endangered plants and animals.[3] With advice from OSCE, Panthera is currently planning on supporting the Kyrgyz Custom Unit in training wildlife detection dogs.

While many of the conservation challenges for these species remain daunting, the adoption of the CAMI coupled with the emergence of effective tools to address major threats gives hope that these iconic and ever-important populations of Central Asian wildlife can be conserved.

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