The passion of the hunter-president, or About our rams
Bulgarian president Georgi Purvanov. Photo from Blog.Creato.biz
Protected species are once again a hunter's mark in Uzbekistan. Safari and the country's more active foreign policy goes hand and in hand. In the airports of Tashkent, Urgench, Nukus, Arab Sheikhs showing up with their hunting rifles are no longer a rarity. The first Western trailblazer is Bulgarian president Georgi Purvanov, who shot a mountain ram (argali, included in the international Red book of protected species) during his state visit to Uzbekistan. The president of the friendly country suffered no consequence - he was officially allowed to carry out an otherwise criminal deed.
Article 204 of the penal code of Uzbekistan says that "a breach of the protected natural areas that cause big damage, between 100 and 300 minimum salaries, or other serious damages, is punished by a fine equivalent to 50 minimum salaries or a ban [from exercising the right to hunt] for five years or two years of community service."
Argali, the mountain sheep whose Latin name is Ovis ammon, lives in high-altitude areas in Central Asia and Southern Siberia. It is protected by environmental organisations and is labelled by conservationists as vulnerable, which means that "a species which is likely to become endangered unless the circumstances threatening its survival and reproduction improve." About 1200 argali are estimated to live in Uzbekistan now.
The details of the visit of the impassioned Bulgarian hunter became known to the correspondent of Fergana.ru. The illustrious guest arrived in the Upper Hayat village early on the morning of November 7 2008. Prior to that, he has been enjoying the hospitality of Djizak-Biospectr, the company that owns the ostrich farm and the hotel on the Aidarkul Lake. More than 100 people - retainers, servants and security - broke the peace of the Nuratin state park for just a few gunshots. On a side note, this trip was not mentioned in the official statement about the results of the Bulgarian head of state's visit to Uzbekistan.
Prior to Purvanov's arrival, employees of the state park had to clear a path so that the guests would not get scratched by branches or stub their toes on rocks. The hunt, including the mountain climb and descent, took about half a day.
For the hunt, the Uzbeki cabinet probably had issued a permit, which meant that the representatives of the environment protection agencies had no choice but to help Mr. Purvanov have a good hunt. In fact, employees of the environment protection agency had actively participated in preparing for the visit of the guest on Lake Aidarkul.
To give the safari any kind of legitimacy, the cabinet periodically issues permits to shoot a single representative of a protected species on the territory of the state forests, but not in state natural parks. Such sophistry, however, will not hide the fact that argali in state forests have long been inexistent, shot to extinction by poachers. Mr Purvanov's shot was not in any hunting areas, but in a natural park, where hunting is forbidden. The desire to keep the high guest happy was stronger than the necessity to uphold the laws of the country
In one of his interviews, president Purvanov said: "Bulgarian politicians and government officials are responsible for raising the standard of living in the country, protecting the Bulgarian national identity and culture, maintaining the environmental balance in the country and the region."
Bulgaria must be a good country, but former communist Purvanov, who still remembers the hunting fun of the times of Todor Zhivkov and Leonid Brezhnev, must have gotten an earning for exotics. His hosts did not let him down.
Before the visit, the hosts cleaned the mud on the pothole-ridden road from Djizak to Nurata, with constructions workers telling villagers that in 2009 the road would be repaired in 2009. That fact alone is a sign that the "royal hunt" will continue. The Bulgarian visit seems to be just the beginning and employees of the natural park are dreading the visit of the next "strategic partner" of Uzbekistan. They do say that Spanish king Juan Carlos I and Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin are avid hunters...
One must mention here that the conservation of endangered species in Uzbekistan is not as big an issue with Uzbeki authorities as it is with foreigners, namely international environmental organisations. To preserve the biological diversity of the Nurata area, international organisations had shelled out not insignificant funding. But a year later, international donor organisations have no say in how the natural park is run, given that the Uzbeki government is yet to decide on the project's future.
Researching this piece, the author had asked several participants in the project to comment on the issue - all of them refused to do so. But neither has denied having done their job, preparing the paperwork to set up the reservation and co-ordinating the issue with the appropriate ministries and departments. Yet the cabinet has not made any decision on this issue, which means that the reservation has not been set up and its future is very much in doubt.
The area is as poor as it has ever been, with employees receiving tiny wages and no government allocation to buy the required equipment. More concerned with the fate of the herds of their relatives, senior officials can ask the natural park's director to send his employees to stack hay in Tashkent. Not surprisingly, the employees do not care much about the law on protected areas.
One Uzbeki environmentalist, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: "If the issue is to have hunters pay hard currency, do it like businessmen - invest the money to set up a hunting ground for VIPs. In that very Nurata protected area, there is a breeding ground for Severtzov argali, which can be hunted officially - invest some money and expand it. Nature conservation in Uzbekistan is in such a sad state that outside a natural park, one has no chance of finding a big hunting trophy. After all, hunters come for two-three days at most, but outside natural parks, all big animals have been hunted out by poachers."
By and by, hunts as the one enjoyed by the Bulgarian president are no sport. No outsider will be left to track the animal - the victim is guided to where the hunter is, even if the hunter does not know it. So it is not any different than practicing on the shooting range.
Considering how Uzbeki officials waste no time prosecuting critics, I cannot fault the environmentalist for staying anonymous. But even official information on Uzbek websites show that less than $5000 were spent by state authorities in 2004 on measures to boost the headcount of protected species.
Last summer, driving on Swedish roads I saw roe deers peacefully grazing nearby. I must admit that my first though was how easy it was for poachers, but researching this piece, I reached the conclusion that safaris, if rationally organised, can bring quite the profit. Uzbek scientists I contacted, agreed, saying on condition of anonymity that private hunting grounds had even better protection than natural parks, where poachers had much more freedom to shoot protected species.
It is not the first time Fergana.ru has turned its attention to the conservation of biodiversity in Uzbekistan. We await the reaction of Uzbeki authorities and are ready to continue discussing the issues raised in this piece.
Of course, it is no show of courage to accuse the far-away Bulgarian president of an unworthy deed. At any time, the axe of the European "greens" could be raised over his head. And that would be fair, because the rams, while wild, are ours. They are part of the Uzbeki animal world, which remains as yet an unfair one.
Ferghana.Ru, © Translated by Sofia Echo