Course:CONS200/2021/Saving snow leopards in a war zone: Conservation in Afghanistan
This article details the ongoing conservation efforts concerning Snow Leopard populations native to Afghanistan. In recent years, Snow Leopard's population has declined rapidly due to human activities such as deforestation, wildlife hunting, habitat loss, and the impact of climate change. Conflicts involving the local populations have further put the Snow Leopard populations at risk, as a majority of people living in Afghanistan live in rural areas, with many working in the agriculture industry. Snow Leopards have been known to hunt livestock, and this has caused conflict between the farmers and the Snow Leopards. This article also highlights the impacts that local geopolitical conflicts have on conservation efforts, as well as the impacts that local populations have had on Snow Leopards in the region.
Afghanistan has a population of 37,466,414 people. The people tend to cluster in the foothills and periphery of the Hindu Kush range, and many groups can be found in the country’s interior valleys. Kabul, its capital, has a population of 4.336 million people. The real GDP per capita of Afghanistan is $2,065, which ranks 213th in the world. Most people in Afghanistan are not very wealthy, with economic instability being brought about by continual conflicts involving the Taliban. A majority of the population live and work in rural areas, and 61% of all households derive income from agricultural practices. 99% of the population are Muslim, with 84.7% - 89.7% Shia Muslim, 10% - 15% Sunni Muslim, and 0.3% other religions.
Afghanistan is a mountainous country located at the crossroads of Central and Southeast Asia. It has a land area of 652,230 square kilometers and a 5,987 kilometer long border. It is a landlocked country and is bordered by China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Its geography mainly consists of mountainous regions, with plains in the north and southwest. The Hindu Kush mountain range runs from northeast to southwest and cuts off the northern provinces from the rest of the country. It has an average elevation of 1,884 meters above sea level, with its lowest point being 258 meters above sea level, and its highest point being 7,492 meters above sea level. About half of the land in Afghanistan is used for agriculture, with the rest used as permanent pastures.
Afghanistan cycles through four seasons yearly and the main climate type is arid to semiarid climate. The mountainous regions in the northeastern part of the country are subarctic, with dry and cold winters. The snowing season runs from October to April with cold winter temperatures dipping down to -25 degrees Celsius in some mountainous areas. The rainfall that occurs during the spring time is of great importance for agriculture both in the northeastern part and in the lowlands. The hot and dry summers usually occur from May to September with average temperatures often rising to around 40-50 degrees Celsius and winter temperatures around 20 degrees Celsius. The Wakhan corridor in particular, while seeing temperatures ranging between 9 and -21 degrees Celsius, receives fewer than 10 cm of rainfall annually. There is permanent snow covering the highest mountain peaks and can be up to two meters deep during the winter months.
The Panthera uncia under the Felidae family are terrestrial carnivorous apex predators that are commonly referred to as Snow Leopards. The elusive big cat species are also known as the ounce, they are exclusively found in between the mountain ranges of Central and South Asia. They are categorized as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species due to its estimated global population of around 4080 to 6590 numbers of individuals. With a population distribution of 50-200 in Afghanistan, 100-200 in Bhutan, ~4500 in China, 400-500 in India, 100-120 in Kazakhstan, 300-400 in Kyrgyzstan, ~1000 in Mongolia, 300-400 in Nepal, ~250 in Pakistan, 70-90 in the Altai-Sayan region, 250-280 in Tajikistan, and 30-120 in Uzbekistan. According to IUCN, their population is also expected to decrease about 10% by 2040. Specifically, snow leopards are concerned with conservation in the impoverished countries of Afghanistan. Snow leopards are considered as one of the “umbrella” species that govern the dynamics of an ecosystem in the region. They are particularly vulnerable to local extinctions due to their body size, high food requirements, and need for larger spaces for hunting and finding mates.
Snow leopards have pale green or grey color eyes, whitish to gray fur with thick fur patterned with black spots on their whole body, and short but fast legs. They are usually 90 to 150 cm head to body size with its long tail and weigh between 22 and 55 kg. They have numerous adaptations to better prepare them for the extreme coldness and high altitude environments. Some of these adaptations include dense, furry and thick skin to protect them from the harsh elements, smaller and rounder ears to minimize heat loss, Broader paws and larger shoulders to effectively distribute their body weight when walking in snow and rocky areas, sharper and more slender teeth to help them penetrate thick skin and tear off flesh more efficiently. The most unique of all features is the mottled fur pattern that functions as a perfect camouflage which allows them to stalk their prey silently and kill them with minimal effort without being noticed. Snow leopards also have enlarged nasal cavities to increase oxygen intake per breathing cycle as well as quick warming and humidifying of dry cold air. This allows them to have superior and enhanced breathing capabilities compared to other animals in the thin air of the high-altitude mountains.
Reproduction and life cycle
Snow leopards are excellent hunters that dominantly inhabit forest areas, shrub-lands, grasslands, and rocky mountain areas. They can survive in some of the most treacherous terrains on the planet and live up to 5000 meters above sea level, which they are perfectly adapted to mountains. Their average life span is normally around 15-18 years in the wild. Moreover, they usually mate between January and the middle of March. A male and female snow leopard tend to travel together for a couple of days to copulate. The female snow leopard will be pregnant for 90-110 days before giving birth to its cubs during June or July. Snow leopards often cannot live the full extent of their life because they are hunted for many reasons. The main cause of their shortened life spans are predominately artificial. These activities range from a local to international scale. Some of the examples are that snow leopards are illegally poached or traded as exotic pets, acquired for horticulture purposes, procured as display animals, purchased as wearing apparel, and bought for veterinary and medical purposes.
Snow Leopard Conservation in Afghanistan
Afghanistan is one of the world’s most dangerous yet diverse regions, where species such as the snow leopard, asiatic black bear, and marco polo sheep can be found. This diversity is in part due to Afghanistan's geography and its proximity to the neighboring continents (Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East). In the Wakhan Corridor, located in northeastern Afghanistan, snow leopards live in the isolated mountain ranges, which extend for miles into China, Tajikistan and Pakistan. Despite the relative isolation of these areas, snow leopards are facing increasing threats to their local populations. These threats include deforestation, land invasion and hunting for food and trade which are becoming increasingly common in Afghanistan. These activities contribute to population and habitat loss, putting the snow leopards at extreme risk of extinction. It is estimated by the IUCN endangered species list that there are only about 50-200 snow leopards left in Afghanistan.
Local conflicts and impacts on the environment
There are multiple reasons that caused the decline of the snow leopard population. Killing to protect livestock is one of the major conflicts between the local populations and snow leopards. Snow leopards predominantly prey on blue sheep, ibex and deers, however, their populations also declined due to the loss of habitat to livestock. As a result, the snow leopards target the livestock instead. In order to combat this issue, farmers in rural areas of Afghanistan have taken to killing Snow Leopards in order to protect their livestock. Additionally, valuable snow leopards can be a source of income. Snow leopards are constantly poached for their pelts for illegal fur trades or captured live as specimens for private collections. As a result of this, the Snow Leopard populations in Afghanistan are being driven to extinction. The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) began operations in Afghanistan in 2004, and have remained active in the region ever since then. Their work has contributed greatly towards saving the snow leopards in Afghanistan.
The contribution of Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)
Starting in the late 1970s, the Afghan Government and rural communities began to implement crucial conservation measures in order to protect the Snow Leopard populations in Afghanistan, and have continued to do so to the present day. The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) began working in Afghanistan in 2004 and opened a full country program in 2006, and have been active in the region ever since. They have contributed a significant amount of effort to the conservation of snow leopards in Afghanistan by training thousands of Afghan community members, rangers, and government staff in natural resource management. They also introduced various approaches, such as the establishment of national parks, to help local communities develop sustainable natural resource management plans to save the threatened species.
The ranger program is introduced to link local communities across the region and give them additional strength and a better ability to protect the snow leopards. Rangers have been hired and trained from the local community, so they have extensive knowledge about snow leopard ecology. The aim for the ranger program is to reduce wildlife crimes through monitoring around the region. The rangers are given equipment for surveying wildlife, such as compass, data book, digital cameras. They are also responsible to carry out reports about the status of illegal activities on a monthly basis. The rangers program has provided the community with an ability to engage with snow leopard conservation while providing job opportunities for members of the local community. It has significantly mitigated the conflict between snow leopards and the local community.
The Wildlife Conservation Society has also established the Wakhan National Park and reinforced local hunting laws so snow leopards are not susceptible to exploitation. The Wakhan National Park improves the livelihood of the local community as it offers an opportunity for ecotourism while promoting conservation action to tourists. Ecotourism encourages more positive perceptions of snow leopards as it provides economic benefits for local people including increased income and offsetting financial losses from livestock predation. National parks have used community-based ecotourism to make conservation a long-term incentive for local people by addressing how snow leopards can become valuable to them, rather than viewing the snow leopards as pests that kill their livestock. Ecotourism has done a great job at promoting coexistence and halt the decline of the snow leopards. However, the only downside with national parks or protected areas might be the lack of funding and poor governance, which requires help from non-governmental organizations. These approaches introduced by the Wildlife Conservation Society focus on local governance and livelihood development to encourage local communities to contribute to snow leopard conservation.
Outlook moving forward (solutions)
Moving forward, there are a few things that the WCS will have to do to ensure the continued protection of the Snow Leopard populations. Firstly, they will have to continue to monitor the Snow Leopard populations in the region, in order to track their recovery over time. Secondly, they will have to work towards establishing more protected areas so that the Snow Leopards have habitats that will remain untouched by humans.
It is critical to assess all elements, provide insight and solutions to those arrangements that have a substantial and constitutional impact on the conservation and preservation of snow leopards in Afghanistan. These include priorities such as allocation of landscapes, population distribution reports, current conservation mechanisms, socio-economic factors, local cultural aspects, implementation of technology, political influence, resource management, and ethical perspectives. The goal of the evaluations and solutions is to maximize their effects on snow leopard conservation in Afghanistan. The most essential component is the landscapes where snow leopards reside. The identification of landscape conservation units (LCU) within the area and enforcement of stringent guidelines would be extremely beneficial for the population of snow leopards, and the removal of barriers (i.e. fences, railways, major highways) to better mobilize the dispersal of snow leopards. Unfortunately, the Afghanistan government is terribly corrupt, ranking 165th out of 180 countries in the corruption perceptions index (CPI) in 2020. Therefore, making the endorsement from the government to revamp the current policies in regards to illegal wildlife trades, trophy hunting, and other illegal activities extraordinarily difficult. In order to achieve the intended effects of the policies, an overhaul of the current government is required. Reports of the population of snow leopards are very useful. It helps determine and stabilize the population since we would have full control and understanding over the true population. The tracking of the population can be achieved with the implementation of technology such as biological trackers, surveillance cameras, drones, LiDAR, and satellite systems. NGOs and local experts on this subject should be actively working with the government on attacking these issues and provide advice to better guide them towards a successful effort. Very little effort has been made to actively conserve the population of snow leopards. Adequate management of resources in the area and allocation of the resources to the appropriate places is also an effective way to fundamentally change the current situation.
The snow leopard is a tremendously valuable species, and the survival of the species is imperative for the prosperity of biodiversity. Before any further confabulation of the context regarding snow leopard conservation efforts in Afghanistan, it is critical to recognize the background, climate, geography, current status, and potential threats to the snow leopard population. The Afghanistan climate change, government, and local conflicts result in a strenuous disturbance to the local wildlife. Although the WCS has a significant contribution towards the amelioration of snow leopard population, their progress remains heavily impeded by regional warfare and government corruption. Many disputes arise when local farmers slaughter these animals to ensure their livestock remain in sanctuary. The destruction of their natural habitat from the construction of roads, fences, and various types of blockades also raises many concerns. Administration of technology, better policies, and reducing corruption are some decisive factors that can make enormous distinctions moving forward. The establishment of sanctions and negotiating treaties in the areas that contain the most divergence and strife would be a prudent decision that would most likely have a perpetuate effect on the preservation of this particular species.
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