TIAN SHAN SHADOWS
By Pedro Ampuero
Most of the stories people tell are usually about the nice parts of the hunt. Those fond experiences over time are the ones that end up staying in our memories. However, this article aims to tell the other side of the story. This does not mean that there were not endearing moments. But, if I stopped to describe each of them, it could distract the reader from what I really want to share.
Everything happened on the banks of the Naryn River, which makes its way slowly among the majestic mountains of the Tian Shan in eastern Kyrgyzstan. A heady place surrounded by mountains, with only the background noise of a stream. Where merrily having a cup of tea next to the tent, makes this tour, this adventure, something so special, that hunting passes to a secondary role. The feeling is one of fulfillment and happiness. You will spend the day looking at the landscape, as if it is hard to assimilate where you are, what you are seeing and what you are experiencing is real.
Figure 1 “Photo” Enjoying a cup of hot tea in the mountains.
The reason why my father had not encouraged a trip to these mountains was not because of lack of desire. It was due to the impressions we received from people who previously took this trip. In general the experience was amazing. But, the organization was generally unreliable, more so than usual for Asia. When looking through the offers, we found that Seladang was even shocked when we asked about them. They assured us that their team was serious and reliable, just what we needed to hear to begin preparing the luggage for Bishkek.
There we were, my father and I on a truck, traveling a road that was becoming increasingly smaller. To pass the time, I tried to finish reading a diary from a group of Portuguese who hunted there years ago. Apparently things had not changed that much, plus it is always good to be informed.
On our way to the camp, we stopped to have lunch with the hunting chief of the area, Bek. He organizes the hunting for most of the people who attempt to hunt the Ibex and Marco Polo sheep. Ullan was the camp we were heading to, which was under Nurbek responsibility. With us, there was also a world renowned photographer, Eric Dragesco. He joined us on this adventure in order to try to photograph Marco Polo sheep and Ibex.
When we arrived at camp we had the opportunity to meet our guides. We also had the opportunity to test the rifles, bows, kalasnikovs and shotguns. Maybe I did not have enough weapons! Everyone always takes their own guns to the mountains.
The first day on horseback, we went to a flying camp in an area quite far from where we started. This area was adjacent to the national reserve, in which the Ibex population was higher. This is where the hunt became promising. It was interesting, because it was not necessary to speak the same language to understand the variety of proposals from the guides. The plans consisted of such things as shooting a Maral in the national reserve. (Marals are protected in the whole country.) Of course, I could not take the trophy, but just take some photos. I remember perfectly how my guide, Talay, repeatedly said very seriously, “Shoot, photo, no problem!” It was the first day of the hunt and they were already proposing poaching. What was I to expect!
At the beginning of the hunt we saw some game. But, it was a little bit frustrating since the guides wanted to walk and hunt. Also I could not understand why, but the game was extremely scared. As soon as they saw some movement, they started to run in terror. I have never seen anything like it, especially in such a remote area, in which there was no pressure to hunt or so we thought!
I soon understood why, since the strategy to approach the animals was not to shoot them; but to try and push them closer toward the hunter. Obviously, it did not work at all! Animals often run out upwards, and we were waiting below. I did not understand what we were gaining by shooting into the entire valley and scaring all the animals that were in it. I was totally frustrated, since I wanted to try gaining altitude to stalk the animals from above. But, when the guides are not committed to walk or hunt, there is not much you can do.
One of the highlights of the hunt occurred on the third day. We spent the whole day beating through the snow trying to get down into a valley from the top. After midday, Talay and I were walking slowly through the cliff, peering between rocks in search of Ibex. When suddenly, there they were! There was a group of fifteen or twenty males, some lying facing the sun’s rays on the hillside. The rangefinder couldn’t show me the yardage. Previously, I had told Talay that I was comfortable shooting at 250 yards. In his opinion after that, all animals were at a distance of no more than 250 yards!
While trying to decide which of them was the largest, the Ibex began to move slowly to the top. I picked the one I thought was the best one. I put the backpack down so I would have some strong support. I remember the scope crosshair placed on the Ibex back, and gently squeezed the trigger. I will never forget seeing through the scope the bullet impact from my 7mm just behind the Ibex shoulder. The happiness was unreal. I didn’t doubt for a second that I got one. But, I positioned the rifle to try to put another bullet in the Ibex.
The herd began to run up the hill and it was difficult to know which of them was injured. Then one began to run slower. I placed the cross at the height of the horns, which was a lucky shot. I shot and dropped the Ibex down. It started to slide down the hill in the snow. It was amazing!
Figure 2 “Photo” The Ibex taken by Pedro Ampuero
In the meantime, the guide began acting crazy, and told me to continue shooting the Ibex. I was a little confused. I suggested he calm down, pointing to the rolling Ibex, in case he had not seen it. I even hugged him, because of the excitement! Although we could shoot two Ibex, I was not thinking of shooting another one at the same time. I just wanted to enjoy the moment. Everything was so awesome, that there was no need to shooting another animal. I got up and looked through my binoculars at the running group, who were moving slowly to the top of the mountain. The guide took my rifle, and in front of me shot another bullet into the Ibex group which was about 800 yards away. I was shocked! Was he mad? Had he lost his mind? Didn’t he have a conscience? Confused, I did not know how to react. I was so pissed off! I took my gun and slowly walked alone towards my Ibex, trying to understand what had just happened.
As we walked back to camp, I recall seeing quite a lot of Ibex heads in the streams from my horse. I asked a couple of times the reason why there were so many. They told me that there were a lot of wolves. However, during the whole trip I did not see a single head from a female or from a small male. I guess the general trend in this area was to shoot a couple of males from the herd and keep the larger ones. If not, maybe wolves are also trophy hunters!
Figure 3 “Photo” An Ibex skull left by trophy hunters.
The next day we returned to the main camp after spending all day riding. We crossed some bad places, including the Naryn River. At the camp, my father was waiting for us with another great Ibex from the day before. Eric was also next to him. They were having a hot cup of tea in an old trailer which served as the main dining room.
Throughout the night, we shared all our stories, adventures and misadventures. It was obvious that we had gone days without talking to anyone. Dad told us that he had to walk a lot, and was outraged by the strategy to hunt the Ibex. This didn’t surprise me at all. As they got above the Ibex, a guide that was below the Ibex on the hill, scared them by shooting his shot gun, without any need. My father could not understand the need to push the Ibex, since it was much easier to just stalk them silently. Finally, after walking more than necessary because of the shooting, he got into shooting distance for an elusive Ibex.
Figure 4 “Photo” Pedro’s father and his Ibex.
Then Eric also shared his experience, which was hard to believe. His guide was also shooting, not even to scare them, but to kill them. He was really confused, since he had come to take photographs. He did not care if they were females or males. All he needed was calm and quiet animals. But his guide did nothing to help. He shot everything that was within a good photo distance, just in case! It was all a big joke, which explained why the animals were so scared.
The rest of the hunt I tried for an Ibex with a bow, but the task appeared difficult. I needed a guide with a true love for hunting, one who was really committed to it. This was not the case, and I was losing more and more hope. I tried talking to the guide. But, it was difficult to explain to someone with such a huge ego, so that he could understand, how I wanted to hunt. I just needed to get closer to the animals, and then wait for them to naturally come up hill in the middle of the day, no shotguns, rifles, shooting, etc. Was it so hard to understand this?
We moved to a different hunting area, and began to see Marco Polo sheep. Talay told me that we could apply the same rule as with the Maral, “Shoot, photo, no problem”. He was offering to let me shoot a Marco Polo sheep for free! No doubt, this is something that did not suit my personality and what I believed hunting was all about. I cannot understand how someone who considers himself a hunter is able to kill the most beautiful creatures on earth; just to satisfy his ego with a picture, and then leaving it dead in a ravine. For me, it was more than enough just having the opportunity to watch such an incredible animal. It fulfilled me completely, what a sight!
The “wolves” had also hit hard in that area. The ravines were filled with skulls of Marco Polo sheep. And when I say full, you could see ten different skulls between Ibex and Marco Polo sheep in one day! The wolves had worked hard, since there were some really nice trophies between them!
We reached the final stage of the hunt, and a French guide from Seladang Frank, joined us. He had been hunting in a camp nearby. He was going to stay a couple of days with us to see how everything was going and return with us on the airplane. The atmosphere heated up quickly in the camp, since the camp chief got nervous of having a “spy” at camp. There were a few serious discussions. We had to keep everyone calm, since we were the only ones that would be affected. Nurbek definitely wanted Frank to stay at camp, and did not want him in the mountains. A French man was not going to explain them, how to hunt!
We took a chance and told Frank all about what had taken place. He really felt ashamed of what had happened. Eric told us about his last day in which they had continued firing shots. The hunt was not over, and we calculated that between all of us, we had already seen around 80 shots. Neither in war!
Like all great stories, this also had its grand finale.
It was the last day of the hunt and we had spent a few days without seeing any noticeable males. My father decided to join us, to see if we could get into bow shooting distance of an Ibex with his guide. This also allowed us to spend some time together. After feeling frustrated during most of hunt, I just wanted to feel the rush of a good stalk, and enjoy hunting, nothing else. Frank was also coming with us, after the odd face from the chief of the camp.
Figure 5 “Photo” It was cold in the mountains but amazing as well.
By mid morning we saw a good group of Ibex. There was not any huge male, but one large enough for me to give it a try. It did not take long, and Baktiar and I started to gain altitude like crazy in order to try to cut the Ibex movement. The stalk was on, and the adrenaline that was running through my veins was stronger than ever. This was the way to hunt!
Unfortunately, when we arrived at the spot we set from below, there were only Ibex footprints. They had passed by no more than five minutes earlier, a few yards away. My father told us from below that it was a beautiful stalk, and that we almost made it happen! I remember getting down as if I was going to take a shot at an Ibex, what a rush! This was the way to do it, too bad it was the last day of the hunt.
Walking down, I saw a group of animals over a mile away, but I could not tell exactly what species they were. Anyway, we went and tried to stalk them. This time Talay went back with me. He seemed a little upset after seeing how I close I was with the other guide.
I led the stalk, crouching down as we approached the group of animals. They were still there, but unfortunately it was a group of Marco Polo sheep. I decided to stalk them anyway to see if I could get within shooting distance and try to take some nice photographs. When I was at like 90 meters, the bedded Marco Polo sheep stood up. I took the camera and got ready to take a photo of the group. The sound of my 7mm stopped my heart. Instantly, a young male dropped down wounded, crawling on the floor with its back broken. I will never forget that sight.
I looked back, and saw Talay putting another bullet in the chamber of my rifle. He intended to take another shot. I got up and started yelling like crazy for him not to, as I carefully took the rifle out of his hand. I was really astonished. My guide had just killed at least one Marco Polo sheep (since they were all together in a group) with my rifle and in my face! This really was the end. I went to get the horses, and meet the rest of the group to tell them what just happened. It was hard to believe!
At the camp, there was a good discussion, following the bad taste that stays with you after this kind of situation. The last day started amazingly well, but then ended up being one of the worst hunting experiences we have ever had.
Driving in the car toward the airport, we shared the whole hunt with Frank. He said he would meet with Renaud in a few days to let him know everything that happened first hand. Unfortunately, we had not heard anything from him giving us an explanation about what happened, until he knew I was writing this article. A bit late since it’s been several months. Anyway, I am glad knowing that the article has already served a purpose.
Sincerely I admit that writing this has saddened me, because we could see that a paradise is being destroyed little by little. And perhaps the hunters are the ones encouraging this situation. We are the first ones that should not accept these kinds of proposals and defend what we love most, which is the outdoors and nature. It makes you think that if we do not protect these places, I do not know who will. I’d rather not think about what the banks of the river Naryn will look like in a few years, if their hunting and management continue taking this same path. I hope this article moves some consciences, and shows everyone the sad and dark side of the Tian Shan.