Sarez Lake, Pamir, Tajikistan
Fighting butterfly poachers

International insect trade is a little-known, but environmentally destructive business. Each year, hundreds of thousands of butterflies, moths and beetles are caught in many countries and sold to private collectors in the West, mostly in Germany. Gangs of professional butterfly hunters organize expensive expeditions, sometimes hire local people, and use all possible methods of collecting their target species in large numbers. They use special sources of ultraviolet light, chemical baits, and sometimes cut down large trees to get caterpillars from the forest canopy. Their activities attract little attention, because in Third World countries only large animals are generally considered to be in need of protection. The more rare is the species, the higher is the market price; so a butterfly can be hunted into extinction within just a few years. Some of the poachers make special efforts to hunt a species to complete extinction - in this case, the price for each specimen will be astronomical.

Lake Zorkul on Tajikistan/Afghanistan
border, Southern Pamir Mountains
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the mountains of Central Asia became the prime target for butterfly hunters. Here the most prized genus, Parnassius, reaches its highest diversity (Colias and other genera are also looked for). Some species form local races on almost every mountain range. Up to 50 groups of Russian, European and American hunters enter the area every summer despite occasional guerilla activity, economic chaos and high crime levels.
Although local authorities are generally aware of ongoing poaching, there is little they can do to stop it. Many rare subspecies are known only to people who hunt or collect them - their habitats and habits are a tightly-kept commercial secret. Getting to some locations requires hiring a helicopter, which is a problem for cash-starving local governments. It is very difficult to prevent smuggling of such small objects as tiny insects. Professional poachers are tough people, excellent mountaineers, and they try to make friends with local warlords and drug smugglers (which is usually the same). butterflies
Couple of Parnassius tjanshanicus,
Transalay Range, Kyrgyzstan
Our camp on an alpine meadow,
Pamir Mountains, Tajikistan
We conducted a number of expeditions to Central Asia to gather information about endangered butterflies and poaching. Finding them is an enormous challenge. Some isolated populations number less than 100 insects and inhabit less than 1 sq. km of rocks above snowline. Certain species fly only for a few days once in two years, and the exact dates shift from year to year. Sometimes gangs of poachers are secretly followed by others and then shot. There is a lot of espionage, electronic bugging, and other James Bond-style activities in this business. Once I even wrote a small movie script about all this.
Mountain peaks of Central Asia, left to right: Communism Peak, Pamir (7495m/25,000'); Khan Tengri, Tien Shan (7003 m/23,360'); Beluha, Altai (4506m/15,120')
High, Tibet-like plateau of Eastern Pamir shelters many isolated populations of Parnassius charltonius - the most beautiful butterfly in Central Asia. Most of endangered subspecies there survive on tiny rocky hills, formerly nunataks above the ice shield that had covered the plateau during the Ice Age. These rocks can be reached by car or horse from the paved Pamir Highway, so local butterflies are extremely vulnerable. The population of P. charltonius anjuta consists of less than 50 insects, has a habitat of 600 sq. meters (6000 sq. feet), and can be reached from a dirt road by a one-hour hike. Pamir
Pamir Highway in the mountains
of Eastern Pamir, Tajikistan
Muztagata, Eastern Pamir, China
Sometimes butterfly hunters cross the borders to smuggle rare insects from Afghanistan or China. Although most of Central Asian countries try to protect their species, in most cases they have no information about newly-discovered populations. In the former Soviet republics, efforts of local officials in charge of Nature protection are often limited to charging fees and/or bribes for catching insects or taking them out of country.
Unlike Eastern Pamir, Western Pamir (Badakhshan) is a very difficult place to travel. Its high ridges and deep gorges are sometimes almost impenetrable. Each valley is inhabited by its own ethnic group, and has its own unique climate and vegetation. Although poachers do visit the area, local butterflies are less vulnerable, because their populations are usually larger and more difficult to reach. gorge
Western Pamir near
Tajikistan/Afghanistan border
Parnassius charltonius
, somewhere
in Central Asia
I am one of less than five people who have seen this butterfly, named after my friend's wife. These creatures fly once in two years in a remote place in Central Asia, where they inhabit a small rock face and an ajacent talus slope. It takes five minutes to walk across their entire habitat. I hope no one will see them within the next few decades, while butterfly collectors still exist. We keep the location secret, of course. Although it is very difficult to get there, the possible award is so high. If we let a word out, this subspecies would likely become extinct in 3-5 years.
Habitat of P.
Pupa of P.
Northern Pamir.
Larva of P. charltonius,
with an egg of a parasitic fly,
Northern Pamir.
Pupa of P.
Northern Pamir.
Few people have ever tried to study the ecology and life cycle of high-altitude butterflies. Their larvae and pupae are mostly hidden under stones, and can be extremely difficult to find. Raising adults from larvae is almost impossible.
The habitat of
, Asia.
The most famous location in Central Asia is Sarez, the World's most beautiful lake. It was formed in 1910, when an earthquake-caused rockslide dammed Bartang River in Central Pamir. The lake eventually reached 70 km (40 miles) in length, and 1 km (.6 mile) in depth. All villages in the area were either destroyed by the slide or inundated, so the entire country now belongs to wildlife. Here one of the World's rarest butterflies, Parnassius autocrator, lives on almost vertical slopes. lake1 lake2
Lake Sarez, Tajikistan
Helicopter taking off to
its 4-hrs flight
to Sarez Lake via
Bartang Narrows.
Rushan, Tajikistan
As a young lake, Sarez
has no real coastline. It
takes you 6 hours to
climb such a slope, and
6 minutes to "ski" down.
Getting to Sarez isn't easy. Doing it without a helicopter requires an expedition so logistically complete, technically difficult and dangerous, that no people have done it since the beginning of Civil War in Tajikistan. If you manage to get a helicopter, you'd also need a pilot with many years of Western Pamir experience. Bartang Gorge is the third deepest in the World (after Kali Gandaki in Nepal and Colca in Peru). In some parts it is so narrow that you can throw a stone across. There is always a possibility of being killed by a missile from some of the villages along the route. Finally, there are only three spots for landing near the lake, and they are in the mouths of very windy canyons.
Despite all difficulties, butterfly hunters sometimes manage to reach the lake. They catch butterflies on rock faces and moving talus slopes, and casualties are an everyday routine in such expeditions. Parnassius autocrator, P. charltonius, and also P. loxias from China/ Kyrgyzstan border are each associated with stories of serious injuries and deaths. dam
Natural dam of Lake Sarez.
"Shoreline" of Sarez
View of Fan Mountains
from Gissar Mts., Tajikistan.
Tajikistan/Afghanistan border
along Pyanj River.
Smaller species, like P. simo, which fly very high above snow line, feeding on almost microscopic plants, do not require rock climbing, but frostbites and acute altitude sickness are common among people looking for them.
Primula - feeding plant of adult
P. tjanshanicus, Kyrgyzstan.
Sedum - feeding plant of larvae and
adult P. apollo, Buryatia.
Microsaxifraga - feeding plant of
adult P. simonius, Kyrgyzstan.
Local officials usually pay little attention to poachers, unless they see a chance to charge somebody for something. To get from Kyrgyzstan to Pamir, you have to pay fees at 32 checkpoints; most of these fees are openly "unofficial". Only in 1999 we finally got some Tajikistan officials to arrest a group of butterfly poachers (the fact that they were also smuggling opium helped a lot). In a shooting that accompanied the arrest, few people were killed; others had to escape to higher elevation, where they froze to death next night. 120 kg of opium and more than 3000 butterflies were confiscated (an subsequently disappeared). laker
Lake Iskanderkul,
pairParnassius butterflies of Asia, top row, left to right: P. loxias, P. delphius, P. charltonius, P. cardinal, P. simo, P. brehmeri; bottom row, left:P. apollo, right:P. eversmanni (photos by A. Sochivko), middle: P. autocrator (photo by L. Kaabak). Not to scale.

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