Bakhton Doniyor (50) lights a fire in her Bulunkul house with coal chunks, dried manure, and wood in the wood stove. Bulunkul is a village in the autonomous Gorno-Badakhshan region in eastern Tajikistan.
Bulbulov Doniyor (55), pours instant coffee into an insulated glass mug, while Bulbulov Doniyor kneels at one end of a colorful, woven floor cloth that is covered with sweets and biscuits, goat cheese and traditional Tajik Naan.
“You know,” Bulbulov says while breaking the bread, “I think she’d been relieved had the wolves got the better of me last winter.”
High up in Tajikistan’s Pamir Mountains, the wolves prey on the livestock tended to by semi-nomadic herders like Doniyor. But melting glaciers and increasingly extreme weather patterns are rewriting the rules of play for all the residents here on “the roof of the world.”
The temperature is rising faster in Tajikistan’s Pamir Mountains (elevation 25,095 feet) than the global average. These are the storiesToday’s climate crisis will affect many people. The Pulitzer Center supported the series.
So, last winter, wolves climbed from the mountains to go straight for the shepherd, rather than the sheep.
“I was certain that I would die,” Doniyor says, pointing towards the surrounding ranges. Barren and desolate. No hiding place.
Doniyor was assisted by Yuri his herding dogs, and fought the wolf pack with his wooden sticks. He does not possess a rifle license.
Bakhton giggles and nods theatrically, pretending to be happy at the thought that she is going to be widowed. But then, she sighs and gets up to join her husband on the ground.
“I’m worried every time he’s out there,” she says, “especially alone with the animal. You have only yourself to rely on — and nature’s cruel.”
“Wolves can strike at any time of the day,” Bulbulov says. “In the end, we got away,”
He and his dog managed to chase the wolves off, but the pack took the shredded remains of one of Bulbulov’s sheep away with them. “Yuri took some nasty hits but stood firm on my side.”
“I was certain that I would die.”
To people in Bulunkul — a village of about 20 houses 13,000 feet above sea level and primarily inhabited by livestock breeders who spend the warmer months in portable yurts — wolf attacks are nothing new. The village is populated by packs of wolves that enter in packs and prey on livestock kept behind walls of clay or in barn-like structures.
Winters here are similarly unforgiving — but in early 2021, temperatures slumped to an unprecedented minus 140 degrees Fahrenheit. The cold forced many herders to keep their animals inside their homes to prevent them from freezing to death — but that didn’t necessarily save them from starving to death. Bulunkul was visited more often by wolves as they became more hungry and desperate.
“We’d seen it coming for a few years, but last winter was the game-changer,” Bulbulov says. “Nothing’s been the same ever since.”
“This year might turn out even worse,” adds Bakhton.
The Pamirs mountains were showing signs of the famine which had driven the wolves into such desperate situations in the spring. As the thick ground frost made digging for roots, grass or hibernating rodents impossible, all kinds and species of wildlife had been rendered unable to survive.
The Pamirs account for 45 percent of Tajikistan’s land — and host at least 16 peaks taller than 20,000 feet — but are home to just three percent of Tajikistan’s total population of 9.5 million.
In 1991, Tajikistan was granted independence from Russia. However, it quickly fell into civil war. In the Pamirs, Islamist guerillas built strongholds in hopes of eventually defeating Dushanbe’s post-Communist regime.
In 1997, almost 100,000 people had died in the war. The Islamists also lost. However, large-scale autonomy was granted to the Gorno-Badakhshan region.
Many now claim that autonomy has only increased the social and financial inequalities between isolated communities like Bulunkul or the power corridors of Dushanbe.
“We’d seen it coming for a few years, but last winter was the game-changer.”
The Soviet era saw the coal industry not move this far east; it did not happen for any other industry. The mountain terrain is unforgiving and agriculture is difficult. Only a few trees or plants survive. Livestock breeding was and has remained people’s best ticket to economic survival.
“I can’t recall a life without yaks,” says Bulbulov. Bulbulov tried it as a young man. He was a truck driver who transported goods to Dushanbe as well as neighboring Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Bulbulov was a supply man for Soviet troops in Afghanistan during the Soviet Union’s invasion of 1979.
Many Tajiks became desperate for income after the Soviet empire collapsed. Bulbulov turned to herding.
People like Bulbulov in Pamirs now face uncertain futures as unpredictable climate patterns have made winters brutally cold and summers incredibly dry. The soil is becoming saltier, and the animals are less able to survive the winters — despite the price-inflated food brought in from Dushanbe.
“Our animals are used to the salty grass around here — they won’t touch the Dushanbe forage,” says Bulbulov. “They rather starve and lose weight. At spring, many are nothing but skin and bones, with little meat to offer.”
“Today is my lucky day.”
In 2020, Covid-19 struck and the herders’ usual trading routes — the roads to Kashgar in Chinese Xinjiang, and to the historical city of Osh in Kyrgyzstan — closed. Prices for wheat, cooking oil and gasoline rose, and worst of all, animal feed prices spiked.
Meanwhile, says Bulbulov, “the price for meat isn’t what it used to be, or should be, nowadays.”
People began to slaughter their livestock in order to make quick cash.
“We need money to pay for our children’s education and health care, and to provide for ourselves,” he says.
Bulbolov makes a thermos the next morning and packs a backpack with bread and meat. Bulunkul’s shepherds were, it seemed, taking turns grazing their livestock.
“It’s my turn,” he says, making a face. “Today is my lucky day.”
Bakhton, a school supervisor for the town of Alichur (about 2,000 people), has to leave for a meeting. But she milks the cows, and Bulbulov helps her with the yaks, before she leaves.
Bulbulov is heading for grazing land when he is greeted by other shepherds, who walk alongside him and talk for a while. One by one, they leave, leaving Bulbulov, his dog Yuri, and the animals alone.
“The seasons used to follow set cycles. Now, winters arrive earlier every year.”
The yaks, sheep, and cows follow in the footsteps of Bulbulov’s rubber shoes. He grabs his phone and holds it in the air. “No signal, it never is in Bulunkul,” Bulbulov laments before putting the phone away.
He takes the animals with him and heads for the slopes at the other end of Lake Bulunkul. This saltwater lake is an important stop for migrating birds.
“Everything changes,” says Bulbulov Doniyor. “The seasons used to follow set cycles. Winters arrive earlier each year. Then, it’s just to wait, wait, and wait. We live here like marmots. We go into hibernate. And just like the animals, we breakthrough on the other side, come spring, bare to the bones.”
This is part 1 of a 3-part series. The climate crisis at the Roof of the World.