Ayan Beg: Poacher Turned Gamekeeper
28 February 2018, Badakhshan- “The snow leopard is the most beautiful animal I have ever seen,” says Ayan Beg, a wildlife ranger in Wakhan National Park.
Ayan started hunting in the mountains with his father when he was 14 years old.
Now 36, he is working for the Wildlife Conservation Society, and his job is to protect animals instead of kill them.
Ayan is one of the few lucky people in the world to have seen an Afghan Snow Leopard. He has not just seen one, but approached it close enough to put a collar on it. More than anyone, he knows the true value of these animals. Today there are only 4000 snow leopards left in the wild. The Wakhan Corridor is home to nearly 150 of these.
What has caused these beautiful creatures to become so endangered? Ayan’s own story gives a clue to the mystery.
Ayan’s family were hunters, and wild sheep and goats were their favourite quarry. “I learned how to hunt very quickly,” says Ayan. “I killed my first sheep when I was 16 years old.” But as time went on, Ayan noticed that the number of wild sheep and goats began to dwindle.
- UNDP has helped to train and equip 50 rangers in Wakhan, including four dedicated to tracking and protecting the snow leopards.
- Only 4000 snow leopards exist in the wild, 150 of them live in Wakhan National Park.
- UNDP has supported the building of 330 enclosures for communities and individual households in Wakhan to provide complete protection from snow leopards and other predators.
- UNDP’s work in Wakhan is part of a US$10m Biodiversity Project, funded by GEF.
“One morning, very early, when I was a kid,” says Ayan, “a snow leopard attacked our village and killed five of our neighbor’s livestock. So the villagers banded together and killed the leopard.”
It is a familiar story in Wakhan. For decades, humans have been encroaching more and more on snow leopard territory, and poaching the wild sheep and goats that are the leopards’ primary source of food. This drives the leopards to attack domestic livestock, which causes the villagers to take retaliatory action. And so the spiral of conflict continues, threatening the very existence of the snow leopard as a species.
For Ayan Beg and his conservationist colleagues in Wakhan National Park, the question was: how to stop the conflict?
The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), with support from UNDP-GEF has embarked on the first ever program to address threats facing snow leopards and other wildlife in Wakhan. WCS began the program by building awareness about the importance of snow leopard conservation in every community (and in every school) in Wakhan, while simultaneously helping the Government of Afghanistan to draft environmental laws to protect wildlife and habitat.
Ayan Beg himself, after learning about the importance of species conservation at a WCS meeting, put his poaching gun away forever, and signed up as a WCS ranger, alongside 50 other residents of Wakhan. “I regret killing so many wild sheep and goats”, said Ayan. “But now I am proud of protecting them”
UNDP has helped to train and equip 50 rangers in Wakhan, including four dedicated to tracking and protecting the snow leopards.
Solutions include building corrals to keep livestock safe, so there is no need to hunt and kill the big cats. UNDP has supported the building of 330 enclosures for communities and individual households in Wakhan to provide complete protection from snow leopards and other predators. The snow leopards, apart from their intrinsic value as a species, are an important part of the area’s biodiversity and a draw for tourists. That is why UNDP supported the construction of a tourism centre in the town of Ishakshim and trained local people to staff and run it.
Residents of Wakhan are now better informed on the hunting policies of the region, and poachers are regularly reported to the rangers.
UNDP’s work in Wakhan is part of a US$10m UNDP Biodiversity Project, funded by GEF. Over the next five years, hand-in-hand with NEPA, MAIL and the Wildlife Conservation Society, UNDP will:
- Boost biodiversity by supporting the co-management of these areas by government agencies and local people.
- Promote sustainable land management so that local people can derive maximum benefit from natural resources at minimum cost to the environment.