Abibilla Sultanov's life was shattered in less than an hour. The shepherd was woken by sound of a wolf howling on a freezing night just before New Year, and ran out to find a ferocious pack tearing his prized flock to pieces.
Fumbling for his shotgun, he was able to fire a warning blast, which drove the wolves back into the night. But the damage had already been done. Nearly 30 of his sheep lay dead in the pen - taking Sultanov's livelihood with them.
"I didn't have anything except these sheep. It was my entire fortune and I was left impoverished overnight. How am I going to feed my family now?" asked the shepherd, who lives in Kochkor in the remote Naryn region, which borders China.
Deprived of his herd, Sultanov went bankrupt to the tune of 80,000 soms, around 1,750 US dollars, a large amount of money in poverty-stricken Kyrgyzstan. "I have to know - does the government care about me, or about the wolves?" he said.
The shepherd is one of those numerous shepherds whose livelihoods are being destroyed by wolves. Their numbers have increased significantly in recent years. Now people are asking why nothing has been done to curb the growth in numbers, and how the authorities plan to tackle the problem.
During the Soviet era, the wolf population was kept under control by well-funded hunting operations, which included helicopter patrols, major armed expeditions, and judicious use of poison.
But in the years following independence, the Kyrgyz authorities had many other things on their minds. The patrols dropped away, fewer traps were set, and the wolves began to multiply at an alarming rate.
While the government passed a decree on January 14 allocating one million soms for a new hunting program designed to reduce the wolf population, the hunters are not satisfied. Manas Ryskulov, head of the Chui regional department for protecting and regulating the use of hunting resources for the state forest service, described the figure as "a pittance". He told IWPR that only half of 64,000 dollars promised in 2002 was actually made available for that purpose - and claimed there were no guarantees that the same thing would not happen this year.
Nikolai Beznarotny, head of the Kyrgyz state department of hunting and inspections, told IWPR that wolves killed more than 11,400 heads of cattle in 2002. While this is a new record for the former Soviet republic, the true situation may be far worse.
"The real number is probably three times greater," he claimed.
"Not all cattle-breeders report cases of wolf attacks to the local authorities, because to do so they have to travel to the regional center and this is an additional expense."
Beznarotny has calculated that nearly two million tons of livestock were destroyed by the wolves last year alone. "The peasants who were relying on the sale of this lamb or beef have lost more than 72 million soms as a result," he said.
It is estimated that there are around 7,000 wolves in the republic's mountains and forests - and their numbers are growing all the time. Ryskulov told IWPR that the optimal number in Kyrgyzstan should not exceed 2,000 to 2,500.
Beznarotny, who has to visit the remotest areas of the republic as part of his job, has seen the misery caused at first hand. "In the Moscow area of the Chui region, a shepherd saw a pack of wolves kill three sheep before his eyes. He was screaming with grief, and tried to drive them away with a stick, but the wolves just growled at him and kept on eating," he said.
Another farmer from the same area, Urmat Nogoibaev, told IWPR that the frequency of the attacks was destroying his business. "During the Soviet era, I worked on a collective farm. But after Kyrgyzstan declared its independence I began to breed sheep and sell them," he explained.
"I invested all my money in this and now the wolves are ruining me. I don't know what to do. Who will help me?"
The hunters hold out little hope that the situation will improve - a view shared by the rural communities. "If things continue like this, we will be ruined for life, because our only source of income in villages is breeding cattle- we can sell meat at the markets and buy flour, sugar and butter," said Naryn region resident Marat Topoev.
By Ulugbek Babakulov, IWPR Reporting Central Asia No. 181, February 7, 2003