The majestic Marco Polo sub-species of argali (Ovis ammon polii) is undoubtedly one of the most charismatic wild animals in the Afghan Pamirs and surrounding countries of Central Asia. It lives in vast mountainous landscapes of between 3,700 and 4,800 m in Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Pakistan and China, with the sheep’s range crossing multiple country boundaries. Marco Polo sheep are worthy of understanding in their own right, but even more so because of their role as a flagship species for the entire ecosystem. Their presence and abundance is a key indicator of ecosystem health in the Wakhan Corridor, specifically the Big Pamir, the eastern most section of Teggermansu (the Little Pamir) and the Wakhjir Valley areas. The Afghan portion of the Marco Polo sheep’s range is thought to be isolated and discontinuous, with larger and more intact populations on the Tajikistan side of the Amu Darya river basin, reasonable numbers in China, and a much smaller population that seasonally crosses over into northeastern Pakistan.
Male Marco Polo sheep have the longest horns of any sheep – the world record individual horn was almost 2 m in length. The horns have a unique coiled pattern with the spiraled tips pointing horizontally away from the head. Their wool is a dark color, with whiter underparts, separated by a dark band of hair. Rams can weigh an average of 130 kg, and grow up to an impressive 115 cm.
Long prized for both food and ceremonial purposes by locals, as well as foreign big-game hunters, Marco Polo sheep were once very important to local cultures and economies. However, their numbers in Afghanistan began to suffer following the Soviet Union invasion in 1979 and the ensuing conflict, resulting in unrestricted hunting as well as expanded grazing by domestic livestock herds within traditional Marco Polo sheep habitat. In the Pamirs today, density, distribution, local habitat preferences and connectivity of Marco Polo sheep populations are poorly understood. Moreover, because of its unknown population status and the potential economic opportunities arising from Marco Polo tourism and trophy hunting, it is now a species of special concern for Afghanistan, and a priority for future research and management.
Despite being the largest of the mountain sheep in the world, Marco Polo sheep are among the most difficult of all wild animals to study, due to their wary nature, low population density, and their choice of remote and precipitous habitats – all characteristics that undoubtedly contribute to the species’ continued presence in the region. WCS has thus assembled a team dedicated specifically to studying the ecology of Marco Polo sheep in Afghanistan. Our work on the species began in the region in 2002 and is focused on three major questions, each critical for future conservation and management of Marco Polo sheep:-
- Is the very restricted distribution of Marco Polo sheep in the Big Pamir region real (rather than simply being an artifact of limited sampling), and if so, what is causing such a restriction;
- Are there barriers to movement and gene flow among what appear to be disjunct sub-populations of Marco Polo sheep within Afghanistan’s Wakhan corridor (as well as between these and neighboring sub-populations in Tajikistan, China, and Pakistan); and
- Is there habitat use overlap or conflict between domestic livestock herds and Marco Polo sheep, and if so, could management options (such as grazing rotation schedules for domestic herders) mitigate these conflicts.
This project began in 2006 and continues to use presence and relative abundance data obtained primarily from non-invasive fecal sampling (supplemented by direct observations during both summer and winter seasons) as the dependent variable in a suite of models that explore the level of support for the various hypotheses. Independent variables include information on vegetation condition and livestock distribution (obtained by direct fieldwork and use of GPS data-loggers), hunting pressure (obtained from household interviews), and various geographic factors (obtained via remote sensing and interpreted through GIS analyses). Patch occupancy and other non-linear models will also be employed as part of this effort. Population estimates in the proposed Big Pamir Wildlife Reserve continue to be generated, both through direct observation and through capture-recapture methods based on individual genetic markers from fecal samples. Results of this study will also provide critical data for understanding and resolving transboundary conservation issues, and hence for how Afghanistan must approach its own part in this important ecosystem.
WCS teams have also been conducting extensive public outreach programs within communities across the Wakhan, teaching about the benefits of conserving Marco Polo sheep populations both for the local communities from an economic point of view and for the country’s biodiversity as a whole. Their particular focus has been on educating school children through a variety of open days, classroom activities and poster distribution. Also, by involving and building capacity of provincial and central governmental counterparts with regards public outreach programs, we expect to encourage a similar approach towards community-based environmental education in the future