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Wild cats

August 19, 2011

Snow leopards have long lived in Afghanistan's mountains but their numbers are falling dramatically. Wildlife conservationists say authorities should participate in international efforts to protect migratory species.

Young snow leopard
It's rare to get a glimpse of a snow leopard in the wildImage: AP

Researchers recently spotted a snow leopard in the far northeastern corner of Afghanistan, in the Wakhan Corridor. Camera-traps were used to photograph the wild animal whose natural habitat is the rugged mountains of Central and South Asia.

The range of snow leopards extends through 12 countries: Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

They are thus "migratory species" that the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) concluded under the aegis of the United Nations Environmental Program wants to protect.

On the one hand, because much of the snow leopard's habitat is located along international borders, which are sometimes disputed, they are somewhat protected because there is no public access to the sensitive border areas; on the other, it also makes it difficult to study snow leopards and establish their current status.

A snow crane
Snow cranes often halt in Afghanistan on route to China or India from SiberiaImage: ICF

Population numbers falling dramatically

It is especially difficult in Afghanistan says Christiane Röttger, a CMS consultant on Central Asia, who names the key problems as illegal hunting, poaching and the destruction of the animal’s natural habitat.

"Some hunters go beyond the borders and then come back to their side - this creates conflicts," she says, pointing out that because hunters and poachers cannot be followed behind borders, conservation efforts often "end at the border."

Afghanistan, which is not a member of the CMS, is home to some 80 migratory species, including the Bukhara deer and the Marco Polo sheep, as well as many birds.

Forty years ago, there were some 80 snow cranes in Afghanistan - this is a particularly rare form of crane that breeds in Siberia before making it way to India or China. The last two were spotted in the war-torn country in 2002. Röttger says it is imperative to act now since the population numbers are falling so drastically.

Lack of general awareness

An Argarli sheep in Afghanistan
The horns of the Argali sheep are highly treasuredImage: UNEP/CMS UNEP/AEWA

Zalmai Moheb from the Wildlife Conservation Society, which has been active in Afghanistan since 2006, says one of the main problems is the lack of awareness among the general population, which means that many people hunt in unauthorized areas or do not keep to the quotas.

"It's something completely new to them to have to protect nature. They don’t know the concept and they don’t understand the consequences of hunting illegally. That's why we first have to raise awareness," he says.

He says considerable progress has been made in the Wakhan Corridor over the past five years where the locals have developed a better sense for the environment but he says the security situation makes it difficult to do awareness work elsewhere. "At the moment, we can unfortunately only work in the Bamiyan and Badakhshan provinces."

Röttger says it is important that the Afghan authorities understand the implications and take responsibility for the environment together with other countries in the region. Conservation should not stop at the border, she says, because animal populations can cross borders.

Author: Waslat Hasrat-Nazimi / act
Editor: Chi Viet Giang