Afghanistan

Afghanistan Camel Trail Photo
Small but robust Kyrgyz horses carry equipment on a hike to Big Pamir.
©Chris Shank
Afghanistan's First National Park Photo
Band-e-Amir, one of Afghanistan’s best-known natural areas, became a national park on Earth Day 2009.
©Chris Shank
Afghanistan Landscape Photo
The Wakhan corridor in Afghanistan's high Pamir Mountains is known as “the roof of the world.”
©S. Ostrowski
Snow Leopard Photo
Afghanistan’s snow leopards, under threat from excessive hunting, loss of key habitat, and illegal trade, are now protected under a national protected species list.
Julie Larsen Maher©WCS
Snow Leopard Caught on Camera Trap Photo
A camera trap set up in the Sast Valley of Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor captured a snow leopard striking a curious pose. WCS researchers hope to help create a protected area in this remote region.
©WCS

Mention Afghanistan and most people think of war, not wildlife. Afghanistan has suffered through more than a quarter century of warfare, beginning with the Soviet invasion in the 1970s and continuing through civil wars and the Taliban years. While the human toll has been horrific, Afghanistan’s environment has also suffered dramatically during the decades of conflict. Despite this devastation, there is now an enormous opportunity for conservation in Afghanistan. With more than 80 percent of Afghans dependent upon the country’s natural resources, sustainable management of these resources is critical not just for wildlife conservation, but for the country’s capacity for reconstruction and long-term stability.

Afghanistan lies at the crossroads of temperate and tropical biomes, and is a critical part of migratory bird pathways. The country is still home to a wide mix of wildlife, from northern species such as wolf and brown bear to southern species such as leopard and gazelle, as well as mountain specialists such as snow leopard and the magnificent Marco Polo sheep. Grasslands, deserts, marshes, and mountain ranges such as the Hindu Kush and Pamirs make Afghanistan a spectacular landscape and an important site for global biodiversity.

Fast Facts

  • Due in part to its unique location between biomes, Afghanistan has nine species of wild cats (snow leopard, leopard, lynx, caracal, leopard cat, jungle cat, wild cat, Pallas’s cat, and sand cat)—the same number found in all of sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Few places can compare with the little-known Wakhan Corridor for sheer scenic beauty. Nestled in the high Pamir Mountains and known as “the roof of the world,” the region is flanked by the Hindu Kush, Himalayan, Karakoram, and Kunlun ranges.
  • The largest species of wild sheep is the Marco Polo sheep, found only in the Pamirs. The sheep, named for the explorer Marco Polo, who crossed this region on his way to China in 1273, have horns that can span over six feet from tip to tip.

Challenges

After decades of near-constant conflict, Afghanistan’s environment has been devastated. Forests have been cut down, grasslands have been degraded, soils are blowing away in the winds, and wildlife is vanishing. This is partly a result of the conflict itself, both directly (e.g., bombings) and indirectly (e.g., the millions of displaced people forced to find shelter, fuel-wood, and food while on the move). It is also partly a result of a complete lack of resource management at the central, provincial, or even community level during the decades of conflicts.

Despite the isolation of rural communities in Afghanistan, issues here are not just a matter of local concern. Afghanistan plays a critical role on the global political stage, especially given the nearby borders of China, Pakistan, Iran, Kashmir India, and three Central Asian states. This is a volatile region, and cultural dissolution can have broad repercussions. If environmental conditions continue to degrade, people will no longer be able to carve a living out of the fragile steppe, desert, and mountains as they have for centuries. Poverty will spread, communities and cultural practices will dissolve, and rural migration will further dissolve cultural connections and negatively affect neighboring communities and regions.

WCS Responds

WCS conservationists are working with local people in the central highlands of Bamiyan Province’s Hindu Kush mountain range, the Wakhan Pamirs, and the last extensive conifer forests of Nuristan to survey wildlife, set up monitoring programs, and conduct studies on disease threats. They are conducting training workshops and environmental education classes to help communities find ways to sustainably manage their natural resources. WCS is also helping the communities develop sustainable resource bylaws and training village rangers to monitor wildlife and enforce these local regulations.

Working closely with the Afghan government, WCS recently helped establish the country’s first national park. The park, known as Band-e-Amir, safeguards a series of six crystal-blue lakes and fragile, natural travertine dams. The area is considered eligible as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. WCS field scientists conducted preliminary wildlife surveys, identified and delineated the park’s boundaries, and worked with local communities and the provincial government to create a co-management structure. Our staff also developed the park’s management plan and helped the Afghan government hire and train local rangers. The hope is that ecotourism can create opportunities for supplemental income and provide an incentive for villagers to preserve the park’s wildlife and ecosystems.

WCS is also working toward the creation of a four-country Transboundary Protected Area in the Pamirs between Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and China. The endangered Marco Polo sheep, snow leopard, and other species range across these national borders, so conservation measures must involve all four countries if they are to be successful over the long term.

WCS Projects

Afghanistan's First National Park

Despite three decades of warfare, Afghanistan gazetted its first national park on Earth Day 2009. WCS field scientists conducted wildlife surveys, delineated the park’s boundaries, and helped the government develop Band-e-Amir’s management plan, hire and train its rangers, and design new laws for the national park’s creation.

From the Newsroom

Afghanistan Creates Super-ParkApril 2, 2014

The Afghanistan Government recently created a national park, the second for the country, that covers the entire Wakhan District. The Wakhan National Park is home to the Marco Polo sheep seen here - a subspecies of argali sheep known for having the longest horns of any sheep.

Saving More Than Just Snow LeopardsFebruary 1, 2014

After many years of hard work and trial and error, real successes are being seen in snow leopard conservation, in the Pamir Mountains of Afghanistan and in northern Pakistan, among other places, as communities come together to manage their land and wildlife, and neighboring countries find ways to cooperate across borders. WCS Asia Program deputy director Peter Zahler and George Schaller, WCS senior conservationist and Panthera VP, explain.

Women Park Rangers Now Patrolling Afghanistan National ParkNovember 7, 2013

Four women recently joined the staff of Afghanistan’s Band-e-Amir National Park. They are the country’s first female park rangers.

Big Cats in CrisisDecember 11, 2012

WCS recently celebrated a groundbreaking achievement: collaring snow leopards for the first time in Afghanistan. USA Today reports on this effort--documented by National Geographic--and the larger challenges facing big cats around the world.  



The Snow Leopard RisesAugust 7, 2012

For the first time in Afghanistan, snow leopards have been fitted with satellite tracking collars. After affixing collars, performing dental exams, and taking DNA samples, WCS conservationists and Afghan veterinarians released the cats in healthy condition. Incredible footage aired by CBS lets us tag along on this groundbreaking mission. 

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