I doubt there is any serious sheep hunter that does not know what a Marco Polo Argali is, even if he or she never intends or dreams of hunting one of these impressive rams. It is the longest horned sheep in the world and arguably the most famous of all the Asian sheep species. It is also the most common and plentiful Argali found in Central Asia where there are fifteen different species or subspecies of Argali roaming the mountains. In addition to the “true” Marco Polo (Ovis ammon polii), there are two subspecies of the Marco Polo Argali, known as the Hume Argali (Ovis ammon polii humei) and the Tian Shan (sometimes also called the Karelini) Argali (Ovis ammon karaleni). So, although many mountain hunters will claim to know what a Marco Polo is, very few can distinguish the differences between the various subspecies and, perhaps more importantly, what a hunt for each subspecies entails.
True Marco Polo are found in Tajikistan, China, a small portion of the Osh Region (located in the Southwest) of Kyrgyzstan, and Afghanistan. The Hume and Tian Shan subspecies are found in Kyrgyzstan (Naryn and Issyk-Kul Regions) and northern China. The locals of Kyrgyzstan also call these sheep Marco Polo, but they are slightly different and smaller than a true Marco Polo. The other Argali species are found in Mongolia (three species), China (over ten species), Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan (I’ve been told up to five species are found here). Generally, this region of the world is referred to as the Former Soviet Union (CIS countries) or Central Asia, and on a map, is located South of Russia and from Central China to the North.
ABOVE: Bryan with a 52 Inch Kyrgyzstan Ram
It is difficult to get an exact population estimate from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, but I’ve heard estimates of 22,000 – 27,000 Marco Polo in Tajikistan and 8,000 – 10,000 Hume and Tian Shan Argali in Kyrgyzstan. Based on my personal experiences in these countries, where I’ve traveled every year since 2002, I would assume these estimates to be quite accurate.
China has very good numbers of Marco Polo, Hume and Tian Shan Argali, plus nearly ten other species of Argali. In fact, China has the highest number of sheep species in the world as it is also home to Urial and Blue Sheep, plus two other distinct types of sheep. In North America, we only have what we call Thinhorns (Dall, Stone, Fannin) and Bighorns (Rocky Mountain, California and Desert). Unfortunately, Marco Polo hunting is currently not an option in Afghanistan or China. These countries have some amazing sheep habit, especially where Tajikistan, China and Afghanistan meet, an area called the Wakhan Corridor. It is a very high, dry and isolated part of the world, where shepherds look after sheep, goats, yaks, horses and camels. This area does not have terrorist or military activity due to the extreme elements and high elevations. The valleys are 12,000 – 14,000 feet in elevation and the surrounding mountains climb to over 23,000 feet in elevation. In one of the hunting areas I have hunted, big rams migrate north into Tajikistan, from Afghanistan in late November and December for the rut. These animals slam heads and posture, just like our North American sheep. It is an impressive sight to behold.
As an outfitter, guide and international hunting consultant, that has worked in Central Asia since 2002, there are many questions I get asked concerning Argali sheep hunting. Some of the most common ones are:
- When is the best time to hunt them?
- Where are the biggest rams?
- What is the altitude I’ll be hunting at?
- Is it safe to hunt the “Stan” countries?
- How many hours of driving and flying will it take to reach the camps?
- Can we take the skins and skulls home with us?
- Is the hunting “legal”?
- Can I bring a gun to these countries?
- What type of visa do I need?
- Do the guides speak English?
- Will we be using horses or jeeps and how much hiking is involved?
- How long are the shots?
ABOVE: High altitude horse travel
First, I will address the “best time” to hunt. The fact is, this depends on many different factors. What is best for one person or area is not best for another. Some areas have better hunting in early fall while others are better in late fall and some areas are better in the winter. For hunters wanting nicer weather, more daylight time, decent skins and better spike camp hunting conditions, go in late August, September, and early October. The best skins are taken in October through early December, if you’re focused on longer hair and shiny coats. If you want to hunt sheep and ibex in the rut, then November and December are best. Sheep start breeding in early-mid November and ibex in later November and December. For hunters wanting to hunt animals in bachelor groups, pre- and post-rut are better. In the rut, animals are running around like crazy and new animals are always coming and going. Hunting in later December through February will produce true winter hunting conditions, but animals are more concentrated and easier to find; however, travel logistics (flights), road conditions and snow can be a factor and only experienced and tougher hunters should do these winter hunts. Hunting animals in the spring or early summer, where it is an option, can be great hunting and produce milder weather, but skins are typically not good for doing life sized mounts and shoulder mounts are sketchy at best. The areas of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan where Marco Polo are hunted are between 39 and 41 degrees’ latitude (North), like southern Nevada and Utah, but you will be hunting at much higher elevations. It is typically a dry and cold climate in Central Asia.
Regarding ram size, since I have been outfitting/guiding in Tajikistan, our average size ram, from year to year is about 57 inches. Rarely do we shoot anything less than 54 inches and rams over 62 inches are few and far between. The biggest we have taken to date is 64 inches. The current, hunter-killed record is in the low 70-inch range. The biggest pickup I have heard about on record was between 75 and 77 inches but was from Afghanistan. The average sheep in Kyrgyzstan are 49 inches and most range from 46 to 52 inches. The biggest any of our clients have taken was just over 56 inches. I have found two pick-ups of 58 and 59 inches, and we had hunters miss rams of this size on two separate occasions. The hunter-killed record in Kyrgyzstan was in the mid 60-inch range. Bases on Tajik rams average about 15 inches and I have seen them up to 17 inches. Kyrgyz rams average about 14.5 inches on the base and go up to 16.5 inches. SCI scores rams using similar methods to Boone and Crockett, but there are no deductions for circumference differences. A big Kyrgyz ram is 185 – 195 inches, and 195 – 205 inches is very big. Anything over 205 inches is world class for Kyrgyzstan. In Tajikistan, we look for rams over 200 inches, and anything that scores 200 – 210 inches is very good. Rams scoring 210 – 220 inches are very big and should not be passed. A ram over 220 inches is world class. This score or measurement is determined by measuring the length of each horn, and then adding the base and three separate horn measurements taken from horn base to horn tip.
ABOVE: Spike Camp at 13’100 feet in Kyrgyzstan
It is usually quite easy to tell the difference between a Tajik and Kyrgyz ram as the Tajik rams are dark grey or light black on their sides and back and the Kyrgyz ones are more brown-orange, but I have seen brownish colored Tajik rams also. The elevations at which they are hunted varies significantly from one country to the next. In Kyrgyzstan, most rams are hunted between 11,000 and 13,500 feet. I have been up to 14,300 feet but rarely are rams found above 14,000 feet. In Tajikistan, most rams are hunted between 14,000 and 15,500 feet. We sometimes go up as high as 16,500 feet to do a stalk but unless the rams are spooked or chased, they are usually found below this elevation as there is little food to be found so high in the mountains.
Mid-Asian ibex are usually found in both countries, in similar terrain to where the Argali live but like a mountain goat, they prefer more cliffy and rocky terrain than sheep. In many ways, they are a more cunning and clever animal and can be more difficult to hunt than the sheep. The price is also not nearly as high compared to an Argali hunt. For hunters who get sticker shock from an Argali sheep hunt, in my opinion, the ibex is one of the best valued mountain hunts in the world. Most of our Argali hunters add an ibex for $4,000 to 5,000 on top of their sheep hunts and an ibex only hunt can be had for less than many Rocky Mountain goat hunts in North America. Sheep hunts in Kyrgyzstan vary from $22,000 – 30,000. We charge about $27,500. In Tajikistan, sheep hunts vary from $35,000 – $60,000. We charge between $42,500 – $50,000 depending on the area and time of year.
In Kyrgyzstan, most outfitters are horseback based and hunters don’t need to hike very far. In Tajikistan, there are three styles of hunting: jeep (run and gun), foot hunting and using yaks or horses. I am not a fan of hunting from a jeep. If a jeep is used, our staff and clients prefer to use the jeeps for long range spotting, then part the jeep and hike all day. We even have early season hunts where we backpack and spike-out for big rams before the snow and rut arrives. Yaks or horses are also used on a limited basis in Tajikistan. It is important that hunters remember to not be a hero the first two days of a hunt. These elevations can shock the system, so take it easy. Don’t rush and hike too fast or altitude sickness and at minimum fatigue can hamper the hunt itinerary. I always take snack foods, jerky, a few freeze-dried meals and drink mix on all Central Asian hunts.
ABOVE: Horses in Kyrgyzstan, important assets for remote backcountry travel.
If I am going to go on a backpack style hunt, I also take a pack for the guide, plus a sleeping pad. In my experience, most Asian guides rush hunters to shoot early in their hunts as they have seen too many hunters miss and have difficulty with the hunting and altitude, so they figure it’s better to start shooting sooner than later. I shouldn’t have to emphasize this but, never shoot at an animal that you don’t think you can hit, no matter how much money you’ve spent to be there. As tough as the hunt may be, it is better to take your time and ensure you can make an ethical shot. Also, don’t shoot at a small animal just because the guide wants you to. It is your hunt and you should make decisions you’re comfortable with. If you have never been to Asia and are concerned about judging animal quality, consider hiring a Canadian or American guide to accompany you.
Unfortunately, many hunters miss big Argali and ibex because marksmanship skills are lacking. Hunters need to practice and shoot more often. You can’t buy trigger time. How many people run the Boston Marathon without training? In the hunting world, a Marco Polo or Mid-Asian ibex hunt is the equivalent of the Boston Marathon or an Ironman triathlon in the endurance world. There are more people that hike to Everest Base Camp each year, than hunt Argali. You need to shoot at both the range and in the field, without a bench rest. If you don’t have a 400 plus yard range near you, do a search for shooting ranges within a few hours, or better yet, sign up for a long-range shooting course. Too many hunters show up with a 1000-yard rifle but are only 300-yard shooters. The person behind the gun is far more important than the gun itself.
It is also imperative to shoot your gun a lot once you settle into camp, ideally out to 500 – 600 yards. I’d rather have a hunter shoot twenty times at paper and stones and one time at an animal than shoot one time at a target and twenty times at an animal. I prefer turrets over ballistic reticles as many hunters shoot the wrong line or have the scope on a different power than the lines are calibrated for. Shooting off a low bipod (9 – 13 inches) is better than using your pack, as dragging a pack to a shooting position causes extra movement that can be easily picked up by the incredible eyesight of these animals. Argali and ibex are very spooky so I prefer to shoot at 300 – 400 yards than to be at 150 yards and taking a running shot. If you arrive and find that your rifle is not shooting the same way as it was at home, take the time to adjust the scope and ballistic program so that everything is spot on. Never assume anything, and telling yourself the accuracy is “good enough” is a terrible attitude to have when shooting long distance.
ABOVE: Vern’s beautiful Kyrgyzstan Marco Polo
Before leaving for any Central Asian hunt, visit your doctor and get prescriptions for emergency medications to help prevent high altitude sickness. Also, get meds for stomach ailments, flu/pneumonia, and aches and pains that might limit your ability to hike. I recommend looking at a hypoxia device for people worried about acclimatization. A website called www.hypoxico.com is a good resource for this. A former US Navy orthopedic surgeon and international hunting client of mine is starting a company called Mountain Medic and can be reached at email@example.com. He provides medical kits and remote consultations for hunters about to embark on such an adventure. This is a new and much needed service in my opinion.
Regarding travel visas, there is no visa required for Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan has an online, 30-day visa a hunter needs to complete before departing. Just to be safe, I always travel with a couple of passport and visa photos but rarely do I need them.
To reach either country, most hunters fly direct from the USA or Canada and transit through Istanbul, Turkey. Luggage is checked through to Dushanbe, Tajikistan or Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. There are three flights per week to Tajikistan, on Turkish Air, which arrive and depart Dushanbe on Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, early in the morning. Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan has daily flights. Some hunters choose to travel through Dubai or Moscow, but most of our clients fly via Turkish Air. Regarding Safety, 60 million people fly through Istanbul each year, making it one of the busiest airports in the world. Security is high and I feel safe in this part of the world.
ABOVE: A 58 Inch October ram
When hunting in any foreign country, I recommend all hunters learn how to assist with the skinning and cape preparation of their trophies. While I do my best to teach the local guides we hunt the art of properly turning the lips, ears, nose, and eyes of a skin, they still have never seen Western taxidermy. Most either don’t turn them enough or they remove too much of the lips and nose and/or they don’t turn the ears completely to the cartilage edges. The local guides are good at removing the skins from the bodies and fleshing the capes, but often the final cape prep is done back at camp, late at night, with headlamps or when the cape is partially frozen the next morning. I recommend all hunters at least watch or verify the process was completed properly before salting begins. It’s much more difficult to flesh or turn a cape after salt has been added. Make sure that the guides or outfitter provide at least 7 – 10 pounds of fine salt (not the coarse or rock type) for a life-size skin. Always travel with scalpel blades (both large and small blades) and a knife like the Havalon Piranta plus a good hunting knife and sharpener. If you are hunting an animal with a lot of white hair, like a Marco Polo, soak the skin in a creek for 30 – 60 minutes (just put the entire skin in the fast water and place a few big boulders on it) or soak the skin in a water bucket until blood is dissipated and before the skin is fleshed and cape is turned. Removing the blood will prevent the reddish or rusty looking hair, which is common with white hollow hair.
Importing Argali into the USA requires a USFWS CITES import permit, which hunters must apply for, starting May 1st of each year. Each country has a limited number of Marco Polo licenses, on a first come, first serve basis. Once a hunter books a hunt, the local outfitters are provided with their passport, address and a deposit. They then submit the hunters’ names to the USFWS office. After an animal is shot, the government requires an export CITES Permit, Vet Certificate and hunting license from the country where the animal was taken. For those self-importing their own wildlife, the guidelines need to be followed very carefully. Go to the USFWS eDecs website to print out a CITES import application and for preparing an electronic form 3-177 import document ahead of your hunt. You can also print out a copy and fill it out before your return flight. You’ll put down the outfitter’s address and the type and parts of animals you’ll be importing. Also, the CITES export documents are required to be stamped and signed and completed at the airport by a broker or customs officer. If this is not done, there can be issues and seized animals are not uncommon upon re-entry into the USA. Canada is less strict and does not require a CITES import permit.
ABOVE: An exceptional 60 Inch Tajikistan Ram
I recommend hunters take two heavy game bags per animal. I like the medium Transport Bags by Alaska Game Bags. Use this bag to pack the skin back to your spike camp or basecamp when doing a horse hunt in Kyrgyzstan. I even like to do this if we are carrying the skin on our backs (more common in Tajikistan) as the guides and hunter can organize the loads better. My advice is to not let the guide tie the entire head/skull/skin to the horse. Taking the skin off the skull while the guides are butchering the meat and removing the body skin is highly recommended. This keeps the skin from getting dirty or rubbed against the saddle and keeps the skin from freezing to the face. At the end of the hunt, I use these bags to transport the skins home inside my duffel as they are tight weave and salt won’t leak out. I put the boiled skull and horns in one bag and the skin in the other.
Make sure to take tags or labels and affix these to the horns, skull, skin, etc. Your name, address, and phone number should be on these labels if the outfitter will be shipping the trophy to you. Tell them not to wrap the skin in plastic and to make sure it is COMPLETELY dry before the head is shipped. Also, we found that using a cargo service like Turkish Air is better than a service like DHL or FedEx, but these work too. Make sure the shipper puts ID inside the box and gets a tracking number. The outfitter needs to scan your documents and send a copy of the AWB, CITES, Vet Certificate, and hunting licenses to you before the trophy is shipped to the broker.
Also, if you are doing a cold weather/winter hunt, make sure the guides or staff leave the skin inside a heated building to let the salt work and to let the hide dry properly. After salting the hide the first time, I leave the skin rolled up and don’t touch it for one to two days. Salting a hide and then putting it in a freezing cold shed does nothing and can in fact damage the skin. If you want to take your cape and skull home with you at the end of the hunt, don’t try to rush home and rebook earlier flights. Take the time to dry it a couple days and to make sure your paperwork is accurate and precise before jumping on your flight. Also, take a Sharpie marker and write on the boiled skull and inside of the horns, plus write your name, phone and email on the game bags. This avoids any confusion after you leave camp. If you wish to tape the horns together, use electrical or clear plastic tape, not duct tape. All skins need to be dried a minimum of one to three months before shipping, so that there is no chance for mold or slippage, during the shipping and clearance process in the event the shipment is lost or held for an extended period on route.
ABOVE: Heavy 57.5 Inch October Marco Polo
One of the “concerns” I continually hear from many hunters and potential clients surrounds their safety while traveling to foreign countries, including Turkey, Russia and/or one of the “Stans”. I think that CNN, Fox News and MSNBC can be partially blamed for the excess worry about safety and international travel, especially for people from the USA. I’ve traveled on average, 1.5 – 2.5 months each year in foreign countries since 2002 and I’ve yet to have what I would consider a serious threat for my safety and zero terrorist type incidences. I’m not saying it can’t or won’t happen, but in general, it’s very unlikely. Most of us are more apt to fall asleep at the steering wheel or get in a crash due to ice or answering a cell phone while driving, than running into trouble on an international hunt. A Pakistani outfitter I know is always having to answer questions about safety in his country and I know many of you won’t travel to this country, period, yet every hunter I know who has hunted there in recent times, loved it. This outfitter also said that hunters have been going to Pakistan for over 65 years with no terror or hostage incidences. Also, if you look at Turkey, it is hugely reliant on tourism. Having a Western hunter roughed up or injured and making national news would kill the tourism business in such countries. So, in summary, I would say that hunters should not postpone hunts due to news and potential threats.
ABOVE: An outstanding Tajikistan hunt, 58.5 Inch Marco Polo, and a 41 Inch Ibex.
In general, our Central Asian partners have good reputations and are well connected with both local villages and government officials. It is in their very best interest to ensure that all international hunters don’t encounter any security threats. In my opinion the biggest danger with international travel are winter conditions on remote, rough, steep mountain roads. I’ve been in one car accident when the driver fell asleep and hit a concrete barricade. Luckily we were wearing seatbelts and we both walked away. Second is the high altitude and exposure of body parts to cold weather and winter conditions, which is why I emphasize the importance of proper clothing and equipment. In these countries, satellite phones or messengers are critical for health and safety. Horses also can sometimes be dangerous, but this applies anywhere horses are used. The bottom line is terrorism is the least of my concerns when traveling in Central Asia. Maybe if clients were to wander around in the markets and night clubs by themselves, drunk and flaunting money, it could be risky, but the same can be said for many big cities in the USA.
When people use good common sense, I feel that hunting in Central Asia is a true adventure, yet quite safe. If you want to go on a high-risk trip, go diving in shark infested waters wearing a steak-suit, like the one worn by Lady Gaga a few years back or cover your naked body in honey and lay spread eagled in front of a grizzly den. These are high risk endeavors. Maybe someday I’ll eat my words and run into some serious trouble in one of the “Stans”, but for now, it’s low risk in my books. If you aren’t traveling to Central Asia, Africa or Russia because of fears and concerns based on what you see on the news, turn off the TV, put away the newspapers, unsubscribe from Twitter and go to the gym, or the rifle range and get in sheep shape!