An American hunter paid $110,000 to shoot and kill a goat in Pakistan.
And not just any goat. It's the impressively horned markhor, the national animal of Pakistan, which can stand 4 feet tall and weigh up to 300 pounds.
The hunt took place in the Gilgit-Baltistan region in the north. A photo of the hunter, identified as Bryan Kinsel Harlan, and the goat was published last week in a newspaper in Pakistan, and there's a video featuring the hunter and the dead goat as well.
Some Pakistanis were furious about the shooting. But Shafqat Hussain, an anthropology professor at Trinity College and a National Geographic emerging explorer, has a different perspective.
From 1993 to 1999 he worked for the trophy hunting program that issues permits to 12 people a year to hunt a markhor. He explained to NPR why he believes this enterprise benefits both the species and the local population — although he does admit there are potential pitfalls.
First of all, how do you pronounce the animal's name?
Mar-chhhhor [with a guttural "ch" sound]. It's from a Persian word that means "snake eater."
What's the story behind the name?
There's some legend that the goat eats snakes and after eating snakes a froth comes out of its mouth and falls on rocks and gets congealed. And you can take that congealed white stuff and use it as a snakebite anti-venom.
Is that true?
I don't think there's any scientific truth behind it. At least I've not heard about it.
How did a program start allowing foreigners to hunt the national animal of Pakistan?
Numbers were down for the three species of the markhor in Pakistan. The estimate for the Astor markhor [the kind the hunter felled] was about 100 in the Gilgit-Balistan region.
Someone from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which issues this red list of threatened species, floated the idea of using these magnificent goats in Pakistan to start a trophy hunting program with an incentive structure for local communities to participate. Twelve permits are issued a year for hunts and 80 percent of the money goes back to the local villages.
The program was funded by the Global Environmental Facility of the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme and implemented by the government of Pakistan, with advice from the IUCN. Initially, it was a $3 million project.
The project was scaled up to $10 million in 1997 and expanded to more valleys and other species.
How would a trophy hunting program end up helping the animals?
Before the program, government officials and influential people and local politicians would go to a village and just start hunting. And the villagers did not have incentives to stop them. Now the villagers say, this markhor is worth $110,000. You just can't take it if you want to. Show us the permit and then you can hunt here.
Who runs the program now?
The government of Pakistan and the provincial wildlife departments. And it's been running really well, surprisingly. Participants write a check to the government wildlife department to get a permit. The department distributes 80 percent of the money to local village conservation committees. And villagers won't cooperate with a hunter unless there's a permit.
Why did you say "surprisingly"?
Because in Pakistan nothing works well. Or when it works it is captured by the elites and powerful.
Have there been glitches?
There were some incidents in the early 2000s when villages stopped getting payment. It turns out some corrupt official put the money in a bank and earned interest on it. But the villages called him out and picketed his office. Public pressure works.
Do the villagers ever want to hunt markhor as well?
It's illegal to hunt without a permit, so you could get prosecuted. And even if they had permission, villagers would not kill it. They'd rather sell it for $110,000 than have three days' worth of meat.
So the program is making a difference?
The population of Astor markhor is about 1,200. In 2015, the IUCN [moved the markhor] from endangered to "near threatened" status. [IUCN states the population for all markhor is now 5,754 "mature individuals."
Note: Dilys Roe, a researcher with the IUCN, confirmed that "we do believe it is an effective program." In a briefing paper on trophy hunting, the organization warned of potential negative impacts from poorly managed programs but praised the Pakistani effort, stating that it has "led to the recovery and substantial increase of markhor populations."]
If the trophy hunting program is ultimately protecting the animal from unauthorized hunting and providing revenue for villages, why are some Pakistanis taking to social media to criticize it?
Pakistan and America, we don't see eye-to-eye. It's not a very good relationship. So now you have this American hunter coming in and shooting the Pakistani national animal. And some people say, if markhor are endangered, why are people shooting them? They don't know that the markhor are doing good now.
Are there other criticisms of the trophy program?
Many people argue that these economic incentives redefine local people's relationship with nature. Before trophy hunting, villagers would go on a hunt for markhor or ibex [another animal in the region that is now part of the trophy hunting program], come back, distribute meat in the villages as controlled mainly by elders.
Many people say people are thinking more about money and individual pursuits now. But I don't see it that way. The control has been taken from village elders and given to village conservation committees, mainly younger people, but I think the collective ethos is still there. The money is used for collective work – upgrading water systems and sanitation, investing in school buildings, scholarships, loans to poor people.
Are there any unintended consequences?
The local people want to protect the animals. They have a stake, an economic incentive that does work. But it works too well in some ways. People want to kill wolves and snow leopards because they eat the markhor. I have evidence of [villagers] poisoning goat carcasses to kill the predator – pictures of a dead goat and beside it a dead Himalayan chough, kind of a mountain crow, that was feeding on it.
Would such a trophy hunting program work in other parts of Pakistan?
If you were to implement this in the south, where society is controlled by sort of a feudal lord system and local communities are not that independent, the program would maybe not have been successful. But here, people, although quite poor, are politically active and know about their rights.
Since I edit a blog called "Goats and Soda," can I ask about the nature of the markhor?
They are independent-minded, like other goats. They go where they want to go. And they are very surefooted.