Ibex are Plentiful in Kyrgyz Nature Reserve

Conservationists and rangers counted wild mountain ungulates in Sarychat-Ertash Nature Reserve and the adjacent Koiluu Hunting Concession, both in the Tian Shan Mountains of Kyrgyzstan. They found exceptionally high numbers of ibex and argali in the reserve, while populations in the concession were significantly lower.

The Sarychat-Ertash Reserve is a 1341 km2 protected area and a key component of the Issyk Kul Biosphere Reserve. Sarychat was declared a Zapovednik (Nature Reserve) in 1995 to conserve the rare mountain species that occur here, especially the snow leopard and argali (Ovis ammon).

A wildlife ranger in Kyrgyzstan’s Sarychat Ertash State Nature Reserve on patrol.

As a Nature Reserve, Sarychat-Ertash has not been used for any commercial activities in over 20 years. No livestock grazing or hunting is allowed in the core zone, while seasonal grazing is allowed in the buffer zone.

The neighboring Koiluu Hunting Concession, located between Sarychat-Ertash Reserve and the newly established Khan-Tengry National Park, has intensive livestock grazing, with over 10 herders using the valley year around to graze their sheep, goats, horses, cows and yaks. It is also a licensed hunting concession for Asiatic Ibex (Capra sibirica).

On average, an adult snow leopard eats one ibex or other large prey animal every 8-9 days. Photo: SLF Kyrgyzstan

“Ibex and argali and the key prey species of snow leopards in Kyrgyzstan. The more of these ungulates there are, the more snow leopards can live in an area”, says Kuban Jumabai uulu, the Snow Leopard Trust’s country director in Kyrgyzstan.

“This fall, we conducted a survey to get a good estimate of the ibex and argali populations in Sarychat-Ertash and Koiluu”, says Kuban Jumabai uulu, Director of Snow Leopard Foundation Kyrgyzstan. “We wanted to see how many of these prey animals there are, but we were also interested in comparing the results from the two sites. They form an interesting contrast – they’re part of the same landscape and have very comparable natural characteristics, but a very different history of land use.

Kuban and two rangers are looking for ibex and argali. Photo: SLF

To estimate populations, Kuban and his colleagues used the so-called Double Observer method, where two observers survey a defined area independently of each other, but at the same time. In Sarychat, they worked in partnership with the Nature Reserve rangers from the State Agency for Environment Protection and Forestry, while the work in Koiluu was carried out with the support of the Kyrgyz Hunting Department.

“In Koiluu, we estimate that there are little over 200 ibexes, or about 0.5 individuals per km2. That’s comparable to ibex densities recorded in places like Pin Valley National Park in India, or Tost Nature Reserve in Mongolia”, Kuban says.

“But in the Sarychat-Ertash Nature Reserve, the numbers were more than four times higher! There were more than two individuals per km2, and around 1,300 in total! That’s a remarkably high number, and should be capable of supporting quite a large snow leopard population.”

The Sarychat-Ertash reserve is home to around 18 snow leopards. Photo: SLF

Based on camera trap studies he has done over the last few years, Kuban estimates that there are around 18 snow leopards living in the Sarychat Reserve. He does not have a solid estimate for the Koiluu Hunting Concession, but based on the number of available prey and preliminary camera trap studies, it’s reasonable to assume that Koiluu’s snow leopard population is quite a bit smaller than that of Sarychat.


  1. To me it is not clear what the applied method really was. Double observer is more than just two observers at the same time! Differences in observed densities and total numbers can have various reasons. The legal hunting is not necessarily the key factor, but it could also be grazing and associated disturbance by herders dogs and poaching.

    Legal hunting cannot have such a large impact a single it targets few old males only, thus not substantially reducing overall numbers. But if the survey took place during the hunting season, some influence due to disturbance and resulting less detectability is possible.

    In ny case, it would be good to make the full report accessible.

    1. Hey Stefan. Of course, double-observer is much more complex than that – but this was written for an audience that’s perhaps not as deeply familiar with these things. The surveys were led by a team including Kuban Jumabai uulu, who has carried out many such surveys in Kyrgyzstan, and Kullu Suryawanshi, who is one of the leading experts on this methodology specifically for the count of mountain ungulates. They did not look for explanations to the differences at this stage – it’s a snapshot. However, the difference in densities is striking, whatever may be driving it. Hunting is certainly one possible variable to look at, since it’s the major difference in land use between the two areas. Will send you the initial report by email, and I’m sure Kullu and Kuban would be happy to provide more context as well. Thanks – Matt, SLT Communications Manager

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