"This is an important and exciting moment for Afghanistan, which contains some of the most beautiful wild lands in Asia," said Peter Zahler, Assistant Director for WCS' Asia Program and a researcher in the region for over a decade. "Conservation is critical for recovery and stability in a country where so many people directly depend on local natural resources for their survival. Conservation can also inspire local communities and even neighboring countries to work together to protect the region's natural heritage."
Afghanistan's natural landscape is dominated by the Hindu Kush mountain range and the Pamir Knot, a region where the Hindu Kush, Karakoram, Tien Shan, and Himalayan ranges come together to form some of the greatest mountains in the world. These alpine ecosystems support a surprisingly wide range of large mammal species, including the Marco Polo sheep, the world's largest sheep and the namesake of one of the first European travelers along the silk routes to east Asia and who described the giant sheep in his writings in the late 13th Century. Other mammals known to occur in Afghanistan include the ibex, the Persian leopard, gazelles, and the elusive snow leopard.
Specifically, five areas being considered by this project for protected area status include the Pamir-I-Buzurg, Little Pamir, and the Waghjir Valley--all located in the high Pamirs in an area called the Wakhan Corridor--and Bande Amir and Ajar Valley, located in the Central Plateau region.
Other priorities in the 3-year biodiversity project include initiating a legislative review of environmental policies; deve loping a baseline of information on wildlife populations, rangeland status, and diseases affecting both livestock and wildlife such as Marco Polo sheep; working with local communities to help them sustainably manage their natural resource base; and setting up a wildlife monitoring program. "Conserving Afghanistan's unique biological diversity is an important element of USAID's overall reconstruction program in the country," said Alonzo Fulgham, Mission Director, USAID/Afghanistan. "We are pleased that one of the premier conservation organizations in the world, the Wildlife Conservation Society, will be partnering with us in this effort."
The biodiversity project was spearheaded by Dr. George Schaller, vice president of WCS' Science and Exploration program and one of the world's best-known field biologists. Schaller was one of the first to intensively study species such as the snow leopard and the Marco Polo sheep in the 1970s, and in recent years he has continued to perform some of the only wildlife surveys in the high Pamirs of China, Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Dr. Schaller's years of dedicated research has also led to the project's plans to bring the governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and China together in an effort to develop a four-country transboundary park in the Pamirs to further help protect this unique mountain ecosystem.