Conservation and Governance: Lessons from the Reconstruction Effort in Afghanistan

Peter Zahler

Deputy Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's (WCS) Asia Program and founder of WCS's Afghanistan Program, funded by USAID, with a focus on community management, the creation of protected areas, and environmental legislation

©Alex Dehgan

Television portrayals of Afghanistan present a country traumatized by over a quarter-century of near-constant warfare–a devastated landscape, barren except for the desperately poor people trying to eke out a living in this post-conflict environment. Yet Afghanistan contains a surprising diversity of life, with 10 species of hoofed mammals–ranging from delicate gazelles to giant Marco Polo sheep–and nine species of wild cat. The reason for this rich and unique diversity of wildlife is that Afghanistan sits at the crossroads of the Palearctic, Afrotropic, and Indomalayan biogeographic realms. Conservation in Afghanistan matters to the world, and it matters for more than just wildlife: it can provide a way for post-conflict rural communities to manage their natural resources. This is important because unsustainable resource use in Afghanistan can ultimately have local, regional, and even global repercussions.

In many developing countries, natural resource management is still the single most important aspect of the lives, livelihoods, and survival of rural communities. Poor and marginalized people are usually directly dependent upon environmental services. Forests provide firewood and building materials. Functional grasslands provide grazing for livestock. Given this reliance on natural resources, rural community-level governance structures are built around the need to manage land, forests, water, grazing, hunting, and fishing, and to solve group resource use problems. Unfortunately, war often destroys these local governance structures. Many people are killed and others flee. Local infrastructure such as water channels, crop fields, storage buildings, local markets, and roads are destroyed, and historic systems of resource management crumble. In some cases, cultural memory of local governance institutions also disappears and this may be exacerbated by an influx of new settlers. Into this "governance gap" has stepped the conservation community.

Conservation, Governance, and Stability: The Afghan Context

Afghanistan's environment has suffered enormously. Desperate people have leveled forests and overgrazed grasslands, and the coupling of an influx of modern weapons with increased poverty has dramatically depleted wildlife populations. Since 2002, the global community has poured enormous resources into Afghanistan's reconstruction, but very little of it has reached outside Kabul. With the vast majority (over 80 percent) of Afghans living in rural areas and depending directly on the natural resource base for their survival, conservation should be a critical component of reconstruction in Afghanistan. Long-term stability will depend upon sustainable management of the country's natural resources and the new governance structures that support this. Afghanistan lies within arguably the world's most volatile political region. If local environmental degradation continues, people will no longer be able to carve a living out of the fragile steppe, desert, and mountains. Poverty will spread, communities and cultural practices will dissolve, and rural migration will further destabilize neighboring communities and regions.

Recognizing this, the US Agency for International Development provided funding to the Wildlife Conservation Society to help improve local and central governance for natural resource management. This includes collecting the first baseline data on wildlife in decades, helping the new Afghan government draft the country's first modern environmental laws, and training government officials. WCS is also working with 50 communities in the northern Wakhan region, the central highlands of Bamiyan, and the province of Nuristan along the Pakistan border, to help rural villages strengthen, reform, or rebuild governance systems for sustainable resource management and economic development. The work in Nuristan, along the volatile border with Pakistan, is difficult, but important for Afghanistan's biodiversity: Nuristan has some of the highest species diversity in Afghanistan. The current "lawlessness" and economic isolation of this region has restricted or cut off normal market access and has put extreme pressure on communities to exploit their resources unsustainably.

Inspiring Ocean Conservation

Claudio Campagna

Wildlife Conservation Society, Argentina, and researcher for the National Research Council of Argentina. Claudio received a Pew Fellowship for his work on the conservation of the Patagonian Sea, and he has published five books and over 100 papers and popular articles on animal behavior and conservation biology. He recently co-edited the comprehensive Atlas of the Patagonian Sea: Species and Spaces.

©W. Conway/WCS

Evidence suggests that human activities have affected almost every part of the world's oceans. A few areas, such as the Antarctic and the deep ocean, are still wild and pristine, containing intact food webs, species diversity, and wildlife spectacles. Some temperate waters, including the Patagonian Sea, which surrounds the southern cone of South America, are also still wild. The Patagonian Sea, like Eden, is not a real place in geography. Modern cartographers named this area the Southwest Atlantic. Its cold, biologically rich depths support abundant marine life and inspire ocean conservationists who strive to prevent the Patagonian Sea from becoming a lost paradise.

Exploring the Patagonian Sea

In the Patagonian Sea, plankton richness supports large populations of resident and migratory birds, fish, turtles, and marine mammals. In particular, plankton productivity at the edge of the continental shelf makes the Patagonian Sea one of the most reliable marine foraging areas in the southern hemisphere–some 1,400 species of zooplankton are sustained by the confluence of the Brazil and Malvinas currents, a well-known "secret" to many marine animals that come here to feed.

The Patagonian Sea supports a diversity of wildlife, including over 900 species of mollusks, among them the commercially important Argentine shortfin squid (Illex argentinus) and red squid (Ommastrephus bartrammii). About 700 species of vertebrates thrive here as well, many of which reproduce along the Patagonian coast in breath-taking aggregations. Some 400,000 pairs of blackbrowed albatrosses (Diomedea melanophris)–about 75 percent of the entire world population–breed and feed in this region. Over a million pairs of Magellanic penguins (Spheniscus magellanicus) breed in spectacular colonies on the shores of the mainland and nearby islands. The only continental population of the southern elephant seal (Mirounga leonina) is found along the Argentine Patagonian coast, and southern right whales (Eubalaena australis) breed off the same coast. The problem with the Patagonian Sea, as with all oceans, is that its wildlife riches and damage to them exist mostly out of our sight. On land, where all is visible, one could direct attention to an environmental issue even when it is not yet fully understood.

But water conceals form and function under a surface of relatively uneventful homogeneity, and the untrained eye sees only the usual expanse of blue waves crowned with foam. As a result, ocean conservationists have difficulty sharing their concerns with the rest of society. How can one point to an albatross drowned in a longline hundreds of miles offshore? How can one observe an elephant seal's nonstop, mile-long dive into total darkness, surrounded by the bioluminescent flashes of plankton, as if traveling through woodlands of lighted Christmas trees? The lives of these animals can only be imagined, and only in our minds can we grasp their grandeur and their struggle for survival. But relying on imagination alone for conservation can be misleading.

The cost of neglecting the oceans is mainly biological, but we also lose something conceptual: oceans provide ecosystem services, but also inspiration; marine wildlife is a natural resource, but also a wondrous spectacle. The flagrant waste of millions of animals each year due to indiscriminant fishing practices is called bycatch, but it is in fact a crime. As this planet's marine biodiversity looks less and less like an abundant Eden, conservationists must find the right strategy to halt ocean degradation. This includes a combination of fitting portions of evidence, understanding, and action.

What Future for Forest Elephants?

Stephen Blake and Simon Hedges

Stephen Blake began working in the Congo Basin in 1990, and oversaw regionwide elephant conservation status assessments in five countries for the CITES MIKE program. He currently works on giant tortoise ecology with the Max Planck Institute of Ornithology.

Simon Hedges is Asian elephant coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society and oversees elephant conservation projects in Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Thailand. He is co-chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature/Species Survival Commission's Asian Elephant Specialist Group.

Forest Elephants
©Simon Hedges

Elephants are represented by two species, the African elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus). African elephants are further divided into two subspecies, the savanna elephant (L. a. africana) and the smaller forest elephant (L. a. cyclotis). Asian elephants share many traits with African forest elephants, so here we refer to them as a single group, the forest elephants. Forest elephants, like their better-known savanna-living counterparts, are wondrous creatures with complex social lives. They play a dominant role in the ecosystems in which they live and serve as flagships for conservation wherever they occur. Forest elephants need large areas for their populations to flourish, and therefore, their presence defines the last strongholds of the "wild" in Asian and African tropical and sub-tropical forests. In recent decades, the range and abundance of forest elephants have decreased dramatically due to a combination of habitat loss, poaching, and other forms of human–elephant conflict.

African Forest Elephants

The elephants of the Congo Basin are in a state of crisis. In the forests that cover much of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Congo, Cameroon, Gabon, and a small portion of the Central African Republic (CAR), the number of elephants that remain is not known, but the trajectory of threats is alarming. New roads for logging and other forms of development had provided easy access to the forest, which, coupled with nearly nonexistent law enforcement and high ivory prices, had encouraged large-scale poaching in all but the most remote areas. The remaining elephants had presumably been driven into the depths of the forest to escape hunting pressure.

In the late 1990s, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) developed a program called Monitoring of the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE). As part of this program, we surveyed six areas in Cameroon, Congo, Gabon, CAR, and DRC–covering some 23,000 square miles (60,000 km2)–in an attempt to get a better idea of the status of Africa's forest elephants. We found large elephant populations in two national parks in Gabon and Congo, each containing more than 10,000 individuals. But elsewhere, numbers were considerably reduced, and we detected a strong relationship between the size of an intact wilderness area and its elephant density. Near roads, where human disturbance is high and where poaching is concentrated, elephants were absent or scarce, having either fled or been hunted out. The conclusion was that, in the absence of effective law enforcement, the key to elephant survival is large blocks of forest that are difficult for people to access. However, all the indications point to a continued dramatic loss of Africa's forest elephants. Logging, mining, and the international community's attempts to lift the region out of poverty have led to massive investment in roads and infrastructure with little attention to the severe negative ecological impacts.

Asian Elephants

Asian elephants formerly ranged from the Iranian coast into the Indian subcontinent, eastwards into Southeast Asia, and into China at least as far as the Yangtze-Kiang. Today, they are still found in isolated populations in 13 nations, with an approximate total population of perhaps 30,000 to 50,000. However, these figures are little more than guesses because, until recently, there were few attempts to ascertain how many elephants are left in Asia.

It is nonetheless clear that Asian elephant populations have been in decline across most of their range. To take but one example, in the mid-1980s, surveys found that on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, 12 discrete populations of elephants persisted in the southernmost province of Lampung. However, our 2001–2002 surveys in Lampung Province found that forest conversion for agriculture had been so extensive that only three of those elephant populations remained. Fortunately, the province's two national parks, Bukit Barisan Selatan and Way Kambas, still contained elephant populations of international importance.


People across the globe are doing exemplary work in the field to save wildlife and wild places, but many of their stories go untold. These true conservation heroes are working against great odds to preserve the natural world for future generations.

Eco-guards of Chad

Though 17 state employees working with the Zakouma National Park Protection Unit have been killed by poachers since 1990, the unit's commitment to save the park's elephants remains strong.

Mark Higley

The wildlife biologist for northern California's Hoopa Valley Tribe, Higley has developed community-based management approaches to conserving his reservation's old-growth forests, carnivore populations, and other natural resources.

Yuri Melini

Founder of an environmental nonprofit in Guatemala, Melini works tirelessly to protect the country's Maya Biosphere Reserve–the largest protected area in Mesoamerica–from being overtaken by private interests such as resource extraction.

Habiba Sarabi

The first female governor of an Afghan province, Sarabi helped to establish Band-e-Amir National Park and works to ensure that the development of ecotourism goes hand in hand with the conservation of the landscape.