Remote-sensor camera traps are normally supposed to snap pictures of wildlife, including the secretive snow leopard.
In the fall of 2015, one of the cameras our team had installed near the Kyrgyz village of Enilchek to monitor these cats captured something very different though: it was triggered by a group of poachers!
Without them noticing, the hidden camera snapped a series of pictures as they rode up the valley and into an area under the protection of the local community through our conservation agreement!
Months later, our team recovered the camera and looked at the pictures it had taken.
“I was sad and angry when I saw the hunting party” says Kuban Jumabai uulu. “But the worst part about it was that I recognized one of the horses! I knew it belonged to someone from Enilchek, our partner community – so the poachers must have hired a local person to help them!”
Kuban brought the information to the community and together, they identified the man responsible, and confronted him and his family with the information. The young man admitted that he had been paid by a group of poachers from the capital, Bishkek, to guide them into the mountains.
This was a clear violation of the community’s conservation contract, which they had signed with us as part of ‘Snow Leopard Enterprises’; a conservation program that allows the people of Enilchek to make a stable income from the production and sale of handicrafts.
All our Snow Leopard Enterprises partner communities sign such a conservation contract each year. In the contract, they pledge to neither hunt snow leopards and their prey themselves, nor assist outside hunters with guide services, food or accommodation. If the community keeps its pledge, all program participants receive an annual conservation bonus for their efforts to protect their community protected area. But if there are any poaching incidents in which a community member was involved, they all lose their bonus for the year.
In the program’s history in Kyrgyzstan, we’ve only had to withhold the anti-poaching bonus once before – in 2010, when a similar incident had occurred in Ak-Shiyrak village.
The young man’s decision to assist outside poachers cost the 13 families who participate in Snow Leopard Enterprises in Enilchek their annual bonus, which would have amounted to around US$86 per family – a significant amount in an area where the average annual household income is US$640/year.
“The community was upset with the young man, naturally”, Kuban says. “We had several rounds of discussions with them to find a solution”. Eventually, the young man’s family agreed to compensate the program participants for the lost annual bonus, pledging to pay a total of US$ 1,123 to be shared among Enilchek’s 13 Snow Leopard Enterprises participants.
For Kuban, it’s a positive ending to an unfortunate story. “The fact that someone from our partner communities was helping trophy hunters is a shame. But thanks to our conservation partnership, his own village has condemned his action and demanded compensation, which will set a real example for the entire community that conservation pays off much more than poaching.”
While Kuban was upset, the community’s reaction gives him hope.
“We’re really sorry that one of our own has taken poachers to the area we’ve agreed to protect”, the local program leader said. “Thanks to the program we are protecting our lands, and we’re starting to see ibex at the edge of village again. We must value this”, he added.
The episode has also inspired Kuban and his team to test the effectiveness of camera traps as a tool to fight poachers. “Last fall, we installed five hidden cameras in the nearby Sarychat Ertash reserve specifically to catch photos of possible poachers. I’m about to head into the field to retrieve them”, Kuban says.
“I’m nervous to see what’s on them. I hope that there weren’t any poachers in the area during the winter. But if there were, perhaps we at least caught them on camera!”
Map: Snow Leopard Range Countries, with Kyrgyzstan Highlighted
Cameras purchased with a grant from IWT Challenge Fund of the UK Government. Community programs in Kyrgyzstan are supported by Woodland Park Zoo and Partnership Funding by Fondation Segre managed by Whitley Fund for Nature.