Prospects For Environmental Protection In Afghanistan Improve, Despite
July 10, 2009
By Antoine Blua
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Afghanistan's environment and biodiversity had been dramatically
affected by three decades of fighting coupled with years of severe
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
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.
"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
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.
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
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