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Prospects For Environmental Protection In Afghanistan Improve, Despite Big Challenges

Afghanistan's snow leopard population is estimated at only 100-200 (photo courtesy Julie Larsen Maher/WCS).
Afghanistan's snow leopard population is estimated at only 100-200 (photo courtesy Julie Larsen Maher/WCS).
Afghanistan's environment and biodiversity had been dramatically affected by three decades of fighting coupled with years of severe drought.

Infrastructure has been damaged, populations have been scattered, poverty is widespread, and law enforcement is lacking. Such circumstances paved the way for the exploitation of the country's natural resources and the degradation of its land.

Long-term stability in Afghanistan will directly depend on the sustainable management of its natural resources, says Peter Zahler, assistant director of the Asia Program at the nongovernmental Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in New York.

"In Afghanistan, about 80 percent of the people depend directly upon the natural resource base for their survival -- farmers, shepherds," Zahler says. "Because of that, with the degraded environment, they face even greater difficulties in making a living and feeding themselves and their families."

In an effort to protect Afghanistan's wildlife, WCS helped the Afghan National Environment Protection Agency (NEPA) set up lists of 33 species protected from hunting, harvesting, or trading.

The lists, released last month, includes 20 mammals such as the snow leopard (Panthera uncia) and the goitered gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa); seven birds, including the Saker falcon (Falco cherrug); four plants, including the Himalayan elm tree (Ulmus wallichiana); one amphibian, the paghman salamander (Paradactylodon mustersi); and one insect.

Illegal Fur Trade

Zahler says the list comes at a critical time: a presidential decree that banned hunting in Afghanistan expired in March, which meant the animals could have been shot and killed legally.

Skins, pelts, horns, and other animal parts regularly end up in local markets, where a snow leopard pelt can be found for up to $1,500. Zahler says customers include aid workers and foreign troops.

"The country has nine species of wild cat..., which is the same number of species of wild cat we have in all Sub-Sahara Africa. The fur trade is a significant issue for these species," Zahler says.

Pallas's cat, also known as the Manul (photo courtesy Julie Larsen Maher/WCS)
"One of the major drivers of this trade is the international community in Kabul. So we've been focusing a lot of our attention, not necessarily on the Afghan communities on this issue, but on the people who are purchasing the furs."

Up to 200 snow leopards are estimated to live in Afghanistan's northern highlands. International trade in globally threatened species is illegal under international law.

First National Park

Afghanistan made another important step toward the better protection on its natural heritage in April, when it announced the creation of its first national park to protect a spectacular series of six deep blue lakes in the central Bamiyan Valley.

Due to pollution and other human-caused degradation, much of the Band-e-Amir Park's wildlife has been lost. But it is still home to the Siberian or Asiatic ibex (Capra sibirica) goat and to the wild Afghan urial (Ovis vignei cycloceros) sheep, along with the Afghan snow finch (Montifringilla theresae) -- the only bird found exclusively in Afghanistan.

WCS, which has helped set up the park, says Band-e-Amir's new status grants the recognition essential to helping the park become an international tourist destination and obtain World Heritage status, which would provide additional protection.

The WCS country director for Afghanistan, Peter Smallwood, says the project "is important for the better protection and management of Afghanistan's natural resources and for the development of a tourism business. The area used to draw international tourists, it is already drawing national tourists, and we believe that it could once again draw international tourists."

Tourism in Band-e-Amir slowed to a near halt during the war years of 1979-2001. The region today draws thousands of Afghan tourists annually, as well as foreigners living and working in the country.

Enforcing The Rules

The WCS is continuing to work to establish a network of protected areas and training community rangers, including in the northeastern Wakhan Corridor, where camera traps recently took photos of snow leopards.

Meanwhile, NEPA is to develop recovery plans for the protected species designated as threatened and to reevaluate protected species every five years. The agency will also continue to evaluate new species. The WCS says the list may be expanded to as many as 70 species by the end of the year.

A snow leopard captured on a camera trap in the Wakhan Corridor (photo courtesy WCS)
But questions arise concerning the Afghan authorities' ability to enforce environmental regulations.

The protected species list includes the markhor (Capra falconeri), the world's largest species of wild goat. Its present range and population figures in Afghanistan are believed to be extremely low, and Tajik officials complain that armed Afghans have been killing the remaining animals struggling for survival in their country.

The deputy chief of Shuroobob district in Tajikistan, Islomshoh Shoev, notes that the Dashtijum reserve is situated "right on the border with Afghanistan. That's why armed Afghans come, enter the reserve, and hunt rare animals. They can enter freely thousands of hectares of the reserve. Rangers cannot stop them."

The markhor is recognized by its horns, which can grow more than a meter long and which have reportedly fetched up to $1,000 per kilogram in China, where they are used in traditional medicine.

Zahler acknowledges that letting local communities know about the new rules, and then enforcing them, will be challenging.

"Across much of Afghanistan, there's currently not a lot of enforcement capacity, but Afghanistan is facing a lot of issues and the protection issue is something very new for the country," Zahler says.

"In terms of getting enforcement personnel up and running and trained to enforce these laws, that would take some time. But we're working very hard on that issue with the government."

He insists that a lot will depend on local officials and community self-management.

The WCS helps the central government develop modern environmental laws that allow local communities to manage protected areas or their land in a sustainable manner. It also works with the provincial governments to have them partner with the communities in management efforts.

Zahler says there has already been "significant progress" over the last few years. He points out the "energy and interest" from the part of local communities and officials, which he says "recognize that food is related to the environment and environment is related to sustainable management."

RFE/RL Tajik Service correspondent Iskandar Aliyev contributed to this report

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