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Afghanistan: The Snow Leopards And Sacred Cave Of Ajar Canyon

By J.M. Ledgard

The Ajar Canyon, deep in Afghanistan's Hindu Kush range, was once the hunting estate of former King Mohammed Zahir. Although the area was declared a national wildlife reserve in 1977, it remained largely forgotten amid the Soviet invasion, civil wars, and the Taliban regime.

Ajar, Afghanistan; 17 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Afghanistan had established six national wildlife reserves before the Soviet invasion in 1979. One was Ajar, a canyon wilderness on the border of Samangan and Bamiyan provinces, deep in the arid western sweep of the Hindu Kush range.

The canyon itself is exquisite. It begins with a narrow gorge of honey-colored rock, opens into a green valley, and ends at the base of a kilometer-high cliff with the Chiltan Cave, from which gushes the Ajar River -- a source of the Amu Darya.

Locals say 40 men of pure spirit waded into the Chiltan Cave centuries ago and remain alive to this day, sleeping or praying until judgment day.

The upper Ajar, up to and including the Chiltan Cave, was a private hunting ground for the last king of Afghanistan, Mohammed Zahir Shah, from 1952 until he was deposed in 1974. The royal hunting lodge lies in ruins. The swimming pool is filled in. Shards of tile from the former king's bathroom -- built by the monarch's own hand -- are scattered in the tall grass.

The surviving royal servants claim to be destitute. Their leader is the former king's hunting guide, Abdul Hussein, who lives in a tent behind the lodge, under the shade of apricot trees. He is of failing eyesight and uncertain age -- around 70, he thinks. He has fathered 10 boys and 14 girls -- the youngest a 1-year-old -- from five wives.

Hussein appeared moved by the arrival of a small group of visitors recently. "You are the first foreigners to stay in Ajar since 1979," he told us.

Hussein says his family had lived in Ajar before the former king arrived in search of fly-fishing and hunting grounds. His grandfather planted the orchard in which his large clan now camps.

"Yes, I was born here in the valley," he says. "I started working for the father of the nation [Mohammed Zahir] when I was 17 or 18."

At night in his tent, Hussein recalls stories of his life in Ajar. He remembers an earthquake that shook the canyon one autumn morning in 1956. A rockfall dammed the Ajar River and created a deep lake before the sacred Chiltan Cave. The river ran dry for three days. Trout lay exposed and flapping on the river bed. Explosives had to be used to release the waters.

"The earthquake closed the way. His majesty came and said you must open the river. With the help of one of his captains, we opened it," Hussein said.

By lantern light, Hussein holds up a letter from the former king granting him authority over the royal lands. He cannot read it. He never learned how.

"No, no. I went to a country madrassah, nothing else," he says. "Yes, we tried to learn how to read and write. But we were poor people, so we couldn't study in school and continue our education."

Hussein carries the title of "shakari," or hunter. Hunting is what he understands. He produces the head of an ibex -- a type of wild goat -- recently killed by a leopard. He describes in detail how a leopard springs at the neck of its victim from the side.

Hussein does not hunt anymore himself -- not since the Taliban stole his hunting rifle in 1999. But he fondly remembers his hunts with Mohammed Zahir Shah, especially the moonlit nights alone with the monarch on the mountaintops.

"He was a good king, a macho king. Very honest, very brave. He had a kind heart. He was generous to the poor and paid attention to them," Hussein said.

The lands Hussein oversees are in sorry shape. The population in upper Ajar has risen tenfold since the former king's time to about 700 inhabitants -- most of them descendants of Hussein himself.

The meadows are overgrazed by cattle driven up from the lower canyon. The walnut trees are shriveling. The apple trees have been cut down. Only a handful of pine trees remains from the thousands which once stood.

Fishing by electrocution and grenades has decimated the population of speckled trout in the river. The Bactrian deer brought from the Darqad wetlands -- small and rare -- were mowed down by Kalashnikov-toting mujahedin during the Soviet period. A herd of feral yaks brought from Badakshan Province were slaughtered earlier, in 1978, as a political statement by communist officials.

Yusuf, Hussein's second son, remembers better times in the Ajar. "It was good here before the revolution," he says. "It was very green. There were tamarisk trees. The roads were fine. The cars could come and go. People came here for fishing and hunting. It was a time of coming and going. That is my happy memory. The bad memories began when the revolution happened and the war started. The parties came to power and everything was destroyed."

The highlands -- which constitute most of the national wildlife reserve -- have fared better than the canyon floor. Mesas reaching up to 4,000 meters stretch to the north and south, encompassing 40,000 hectares of so-called protected land.

Hussein and other local hunters say Siberian ibex survive in good numbers in those heights, along with a handful of Urial sheep. Snow leopards, leopards, lynx, wolves, and jackal remain also, though no one can say how many.

Protecting Ajar will not be easy. Afghanistan's legal system gives little thought to conservation. One idea being floated is the adoption of Ajar and other Afghan wildlife reserves by foreign national park systems with the support of the former king and Ajar elders, including Hussein.

Under such a scheme, a country would send a team of experts to survey a reserve, establish a ranger station, train Afghans in conservation, and take the pressure off the land by developing alternative livelihoods for locals.

Afghanistan has pressing environmental concerns, notably deforestation in the south and east of the country. But the protection of the reserves will guarantee that at least some of the country's wild areas prosper, including the snow leopards of Ajar.