Rangers, poachers decimate Snow Leopards, but Kumtor Mine gets NGOs’ attention

A recent report by the ‘Japarov Commission’ set up to investigate Centerra Gold’s Kumtor project following calls for renegotiating or nationalizing the mine provides for sober reading. It's rangers, poachers and shepherds – not Kumtor – that have decimated snow leopards and its prey. Will this be a story with a happy ending?

Looking at the chapters in the Japarov Commission that focus on biodiversity and the Sary Chat Ertash Reserve (SCER) there are the obligatory letters of support offered by branded and less well known conservation NGOs. They encourage the Kyrgyz Government to maintain and expand the Reserve and adopt its buffer zones. Allow me to also voice my support for measures aimed at effective snow leopard conservation.

Some entries in the 300+ page Japarov Commission report, which is very critical of the Kumtor mine, highlight important facts which are apparently not getting much media or political attention. In the mid-1990s, almost all snow leopards in Kyrgyzstan’s newly created SCER were decimated by government employed security staff assigned to the Reserve. The report also confirms that the Reserve is surrounded by seven so-called hunting farms and that poaching (including for prey species of the snow leopards) is very widespread and thriving today.

Nature conservation experts will not be surprise to read these facts. They are just too aware  of the proven causal linkages between poverty, poaching and revenge killing by shepherds (snow leopard tend to snack on domestic livestock which overgraze the mountain pastures during the short summer months), and the risk this creates for the survival of snow leopards. This is why effective conservation NGOs focus so much of their efforts to develop the capacity, support and motivate nature reserve staff/management/rangers and the communities nearest to snow leopard habitats. Otherwise, these groups are often left without sufficient government support to fend for their own survival, let alone that of snow leopards.

So it seems surprising that some NGOs are positioning Kumtor and some of its exploration activities as a key concern in terms of nature conservation and the very survival of snow leopards. Given the current political climate in Kyrgyzstan, the phrasing and description offered by the management of the SCER in the Japarov report is perhaps understandably vague in some respects. Take, for example, the statement that the management of the SCER  “resolved financial issues by attracting SLT and FFI projects, developed the Management Plan until 2020, attracted employees of KR National Academy of Sciences and other specialists, and organized and held over 40 field expeditions.”

But all these activities did not just happen. By that I mean that there are more mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts and cousins which deserve some credit - and this includes very much the Kumtor project. Having been directly involved in some of these activities, allow me to add some more pieces to the puzzle.

But let’s first celebrate some impressive outcomes. Since operation of the Kumtor mine started in the mid-1990s and applied its strict no-hunting policy and acts as a barrier to poachers, the number of argali has increased from 750 head to 2,500. This makes this the largest such population in Kyrgyzstan and CIS. They are also often observed at the Kumtor mine site. The population of ibex has stabilized at 750-850 head. Snow leopards, which pray on these species, have re-appeared. DNA-supported research shows the presence of 18 individual snow leopards calling the SCER their home or are frequent visitors. This means that the SCER region now boasts the largest population of snow leopards in a regional context (although research appears to have been largely discontinued in 2008 due to lack of funding).

Now back to the family of supporters and enablers. First, the multilateral lenders to the Kumtor Project engaged the International Snow Leopard Trust prior to financing the Kumtor project. SLT was invited to review the biodiversity aspects of Kumtor’s Environmental Impact Assessment. The review identified poverty, poaching, revenge killing, lack of political will and financial support as the major threats to biodiversity/snow leopard conservation in the region.

Second, without the intervention and support from multilateral lenders like the EBRD, which were repeatedly encouraging the Kyrgyz Government to establish the SCER, the creation of this nature reserve (or Zapovednik) near the mine site may well have taken another decade to materialize (if at all).

Third, specific mitigation measures recommended by the SLT for the Kumtor mine were adopted. These ranged from no-hunting policies to wildlife monitoring. The results continue to be reported in Kumtor’s Annual Environmental Reports (see latest version web-posted in English here, Russian here and Kyrgyz here). And as noted further above, the number of wildlife is going up.

But as the decimation of snow leopards by rangers mentioned above makes abundantly clear, the simple presence of a nature reserve on a map does not add much biodiversity value (see also: Creating Paper Parks or Biodiversity Value in Kyrgyzstan?). It required further interventions by Kumtor, EBRD, IFC and NGOs like FFI and SLT (these are the ones I am more familiar with – there must have been other activities too). They mobilized and deployed funding and resources in the order of $500,000+ for biodiversity related activities, including capacity building, small grants programs, research and community development efforts.

Important outcomes achieved include the generation of the first, stakeholder-centric Draft Management Plan for the SCER which was facilitated by FFI (download here: SCEZ Management Plan Final Draft 2008). It was developed in 2008 but is apparently still awaiting Government approval. Also, a variety of equipment was donated to the SCER to enable them to carry out their important research and other duties.

However, it seems that the interest and involvement of Kumtor and its lenders in the SCER and snow leopard conservation tapered off in 2007/8. Presumably, two (some say four) revolutions and associated changes of the Government in Kyrgyzstan during the past few years did not help. At any rate, the absence of these important stakeholders and their financial resources may explain some of the additional statements by the SCER management in the Japarov Commission report. They read like a plea for help:

“Today, the scientific unit of the SENR has almost no material and technical basis.

1.            Now, the Reserve does not have its own office and the current office has been rented since 1999.

2.            Absence of a facility for the scientific department and absence of material and technical basis create certain difficulties for scientific researches, and, in many cases, makes it absolutely impossible to perform many researches in such areas as: climate, hydrology, glaciology, soil, botany, invertebrates, etc.

3.            Field stations (houses, trailers) are in poor condition and require urgent repairs. There is no electrical lighting and no fuel for heating and cooking in field conditions, especially during winters.

4.            The Reserve does not have its own library.

5.            All major outfit and equipment is personal property of specialists participating in field work and office studies.

6.            Management Plan for the Sarychat-Ertash Nature Reserve has not been approved, although, copies of the Plan were sent to KR State Agency for Environment Protection and Forestry (Biodiversity Department), KR Academy of Sciences, and General Directorate of the Issyk-Kul Biosphere Territory for familiarization and approval. However, we still did not receive their official response.

7.            Another issue of the Reserve is condition of roads going from Ak-Shyirak to Issyk-Kul. The bridge over the Targai River has been ruined for 3 years and local residents have to travel additional 70 km through Kumtor. The roads are not cleared from snow in winter.”

Later on, the report also complains about the presence of seven hunting farms surrounding the SCER and that these do not benefit local communities. To me, all of this sums up the real challenges relating to snow leopard conservation and the SCER in Kyrgyzstan. An objective review of the issues and facts suggests that the Kumtor Gold mine is not at the center of this challenge. Just ask those dead snow leopards and poached prey species, or ask the management of the nature reserve and communities located nearby.

And here is a silver lining:

Kumtor and various NGOs have re-engaged and are considering new collaboration opportunities. These includes conversations with FFI, SLT and NABU. NGOs and other stakeholders associated with snow leopard conservation convened a workshop in May 2012 to develop the first national strategy for snow leopard conservation. They plan to reconvene in September 2012 and generate the first national snow leopard conservation strategy for Kyrgyzstan. A research groups associated with Professor Shigeyuki Izumiyama from Japan is working with the SCER to introduce the application of novel satellite monitoring of wildlife in the Kyrgyz Republic. The EBRD is increasingly takeing a broader and regional look at nature conservation (see here description of related EBRD event in Mongolia).  The World Bank’s Global Tiger Initiative has also recently visited the Kyrgyz Republic. GTI is reviewing opportunities to develop and support transboundary reserves.

Where will we go from here? I would be curious to read about your insights and predictions.

You may also be interested in reading this subsequent blog entry:  Biodiversity Management Strategy & Plan for Gold Mine 

8 Comments to Rangers, poachers decimate Snow Leopards, but Kumtor Mine gets NGOs’ attention

  1. […] lay ahead. This includes the decimation of snow leopards and its prey species I bloged about here: Rangers, poachers decimate Snow Leopards, but Kumtor Mine gets NGOs’ attention. It took collaboration with and learning from Fauna & Flora International (FFI), a conservation […]

  2. Endangered snow leopard habitat is also threatened by climate change, WWF study shows. See WWF media release here:
    http://wwf.panda.org/wwf_news/?205650/Endangered-snow-leopard-habitat-threatened-by-climate-change-WWF-study-shows

  3. An interesting read. For once the benefits that responsible mining consortiums can offer are explained in a clear manner. Further, the true story behind real issues that impact conservation are described. Its frustrating that NGO’s play the blame game without really looking at the real issue at hand. Mines do have environmental impact but can also offer good solutions to real conservation problems. It’s about time that NGO’s start utilizing Mining consortiums as leverage to achieve their ultimate goal. If life sometimes you have to lose a little before you win a lot. It’s that fine balance that needs to be achieved. NGO’s should focus on fostering improved relationships with industry to achieve their ultimate goal. Its far easier for industry to give financial support to a project knowing they are doing good, than giving support to a NGO that decimates them in the media.

  4. Thanks for your comments.

  5. […] About « Rangers, poachers decimate Snow Leopards, but Kumtor Mine gets NGOs’ attention […]

  6. […] Rangers, poachers decimate Snow Leopards, but Kumtor Mine gets NGOs’ attention […]

  7. […] Reserve which is located adjacent to the high altitude Kumtor Gold Mine. However, despite of evidence to the contrary, previous Kyrgyz Government appointed Interagency and Parliamentary Commissions […]

  8. […] also stated that rangers and farmers were also placing these beautiful cats in severe endangerment http://prizmablog.com/2012/08/02/rangers-poacher-decimate-snow-leopards-but-kumtor-mine-gets-ngos-at…  if we cannot trust our rangers to farmers then what chance of life does the Snow Leopard […]

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