A Look at One of Afghanistan’s Most Endangered Animals

Afghanistan is one of the few countries in the world that the elusive snow leopard calls home. The secretive big cat inhabits the high mountains of Central Asia—some of the most remote landscapes on the planet—and the Wakhan Corridor of northeastern Afghanistan marks the westernmost edge of its territory.

Since ancient times, the snow leopard has been a sacred animal and an important cultural symbol for the mountain people with whom it shares its territory. Despite this status, however, the last several decades have seen the snow leopard pushed to the brink of extinction due to poaching, illegal trade, and the loss of habitat and prey due to development and expansion. At one point, estimates placed the snow leopard population of Afghanistan at only 50 to 60 animals.

snow leopard

A brighter future for the snow leopard?

Today, experts are hopeful that the snow leopard’s numbers will rise again due in large part to the efforts of a variety of country government agencies and NGOs that are making the preservation of this mysterious species a top priority. One organization dedicated to saving the snow leopard is the Global Snow Leopard & Ecosystem Protection Program (GSLEP). Based in the Kyrgyz Republic, GSLEP brings together country governments, non-governmental and inter-governmental organizations, local communities, and private sector representatives on a shared mission to conserve snow leopards and their precious high-mountain ecosystems.

To date, GSLEP has been remarkably successful in uniting these diverse stakeholders and in making progress by working together. In 2013, under the umbrella of GSLEP, the governments of all 12 of the snow leopard’s range countries—including Afghanistan, China, India, and Russia—unanimously adopted the Bishkek Declaration on the Conservation of the Snow Leopard, a resolution which outlined each government’s commitment to protecting and recovering snow leopard populations and habitats. The goal of the declaration is to secure at least 20 different snow leopard landscapes across the animal’s range by the year 2020 (a secure snow leopard landscape is one that is home to at least 100 breeding age snow leopards). According to recent reports from Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Agency, the snow leopard’s numbers have significantly increased over the last few years.

What you need to know about snow leopards.

snow leopard

Interestingly, for all of their cultural significance, few people know much about the iconic snow leopard. The cat is rarely seen by humans, and due to its secretive behavior, many details about its life and habits remain a mystery. However, as a result of the increased conservation work that has been undertaken in recent years (including technological advancements like remote-triggered camera captures), our knowledge of snow leopards has been steadily increasing. Read on to learn some amazing facts about this unique species and to obtain an up close and personal look at one of the world’s most enigmatic animals.

Snow leopards are high-altitude specialists—Snow leopards tend to live above the treeline in high-altitude forests, alpine meadows, and high rocky areas, usually at elevations of 2,700 to 5,000 meters. In Russia, they have been observed at elevations as low as 540 meters, but their preferred terrain is steeper and more remote. In general, they favor broken rocky terrain and irregularly sloping areas and tend to avoid major valleys, forested areas, extensive open areas, and regions with a strong human presence.

Snow leopards are solitary—Like some other species of big cats, snow leopards are solitary animals who live and roam alone for most of their lives. The exception to this is mating pairs and females with their litters. Young snow leopards generally leave their mothers and siblings at about 18 to 22 months of age.

Snow leopards can travel long distances—Due to their solitary habits, snow leopards are widely dispersed over their territory and must often travel long distances to find prey and a remote habitat. Dispersing leopards (leopards that leave their family groups) have been known to traverse up to 65 kilometers of open terrain to reach more isolated, rocky territories, and some snow leopards have been recorded as far as 200 kilometers from their usual haunts.

Snow leopards are opportunistic predators—While some animals are specialized predators (only preying on specific species), snow leopards are what are known as “opportunistic predators.” What this means is that they hunt a wide variety of prey and may scavenge when possible and necessary. While their principal prey are ibex and blue sheep, they are capable of killing prey up to three times their own weight. Therefore, throughout their territory, the only animals unavailable to them as prey are adult camels, wild yak, and kiang. In terms of prey, snow leopards kill a large hooved animal (or equivalent) every 10 to 15 days and can stay with it for up to a week if they are not disturbed.

5 Charities Seeking to Improve Lives in Afghanistan

Of the numerous charitable organizations working in Afghanistan, many are helping to support a broad range of large-scale initiatives and development goals. Other charities are taking a different approach. Rather than offering wide-ranging development support, these organizations are focusing their efforts on tackling and solving highly targeted problems: issues that may not seem as big or as impressive as reforming the educational system or improving access to health care, but which are still vital to a functional and prosperous Afghan society. Read on to learn about five international organizations that are helping Afghanistan to deal with very specific challenges:

1. Dutch Committee for Afghanistan Livestock Programs

Specific mission: Improving the health and production of Afghan livestock.

The livestock programs of the Dutch Committee for Afghanistan (DCA-VET) are intended to support the roughly 24 million Afghans who live in the countryside and depend on livestock and agriculture for their livelihood. Most rural families keep at least some livestock—cattle, sheep, goats, donkeys, and poultry are the most common animals—but local farmers are often prevented from making the most of their livestock due to rampant animal diseases, an insufficient knowledge of animal husbandry and nutrition, and a lack of good market opportunities for their livestock products. DCA helps farmers to overcome these issues by developing quality veterinary services throughout rural Afghanistan, offering comprehensive extension and outreach programs on animal health, and creating value chains for livestock product processing and trading.

Livestock

2. The HALO Trust

Specific mission: Landmine clearance and mine risk education.

Afghanistan is one of the most mined countries in the world. An estimated 640,000 land mines have been laid out in Afghanistan since 1979, and the country is littered with unexploded ordnance. As a result, the subsistence of rural communities is threatened in areas where there is a risk of landmine contamination because land cannot be safely used to grow crops or graze animals. In order to address this deadly issue, The HALO Trust has been working in Afghanistan since 1988 on landmine clearance and mine risk education programs. Over the course of the last 30 years, the organization, which employs 2,500 Afghans, has destroyed close to 700,000 emplaced and stockpiled mines, and has helped to clear almost 80% of recorded mine and unexploded ordnance land in Afghanistan.

3. Group for the Environment, Renewable Energy and Solidarity (GERES)

Specific mission: Disseminating energy-efficient techniques.

As a development NGO specializing in sustainable energy and environmental protection, GERES has been working internationally to improve community living conditions while preserving natural resources for more than four decades. In Afghanistan, GERES’ work focuses on facilitating the adoption of energy-efficient techniques in public buildings and income-generating agricultural activities. A large portion of Afghanistan’s population is affected by energy poverty. Only about 6% of Afghans have access to electricity, even intermittently. Consequently, schools are closed for much of the year due to a lack of heating, and hospitals are hampered in their operations by high energy costs. Introducing energy-efficient techniques to these institutions is therefore an important first step in helping them to make the most of the energy that they can access.

4. Terra Institute

Specific mission: Securing equitable access to land.

Based in the United States, Terra Institute is a nonprofit focused on issues related to land tenure, land administration and management, and land policy reform. Throughout its four decades of work all around the world, the organization has strived to help people improve their lives by empowering them to deal with land issues. Such issues are prevalent in Afghanistan, given its large rural population and heavy economic reliance on land-intensive activities such as agriculture and livestock. As part of its work in Afghanistan, Terra Institute has collaborated with a number of partners to design and pilot a community-based method for achieving community consensus around the legitimate users of rangeland and appropriately documenting them.

Sheep grazing

5. PARSA

Specific mission: Supporting Afghan community leaders.

PARSA believes that it takes dedicated and passionate Afghan community leaders to create a better Afghan society. This is why PARSA is still operating as a grassroots organization after working for more than 20 years in Afghanistan. Unlike many other development organizations, PARSA is directly engaged with the communities that it supports, and it takes cues from community leaders as to what interventions and resources will work best for each community. These inspired leaders then leverage PARSA’s support and guidance to implement programs that will spark positive change for their families and neighbors, and that can evolve organically over time as community needs change. Since PARSA itself receives support from a wide community of small donors, it is able to be highly creative and flexible in its program development without being hampered by the rigid limitations that are often attached to large-scale government and institutional funding.

What’s New at the UNESCO Office in Kabul?

Since it was re-opened in 2002, the UNESCO Office in Kabul has been working with the government of Afghanistan and a variety of local and international partners and stakeholders to build Afghanistan’s capacity in the areas of education,culture, communication and information, and natural and social sciences. In pursuit of this goal, the Office oversees a broad range of programs and events across these focus areas, all designed to enrich thelives of Afghan citizens and contribute to a stronger future for their country.

Some of the most recent offerings from the UNESCO Office in Kabul include the following:

Workshop on Intangible Cultural Heritage

Cultural heritage involves more than monuments and collections of objects. It also includes traditions and living expressions (e.g., oral traditions, rituals,social practices, festive events, and performing arts, as well as the knowledge and skills involved in the production of traditional crafts) that cultural groups have passed down to their descendants for generations. UNESCO refers to this body of traditions as “intangible cultural heritage” (ICH), and the question of how to safeguard these practices is of growing concern in the face of globalization.

Image by Unesco Headquarters Paris | Flickr

In October 2018, UNESCO and Afghanistan’s Ministry of Information and Culture organized a community-based workshop on the topic of preserving and promoting ICH in Afghanistan. Held over four days in the city of Bamiyan, the main goal of the workshop was to train local communities to effectively document,protect, and promote their own ICH practices. The workshop’s attendees included local ICH practitioners and representatives from a variety of organizations,including the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and the University of Bamiyan. Over the course of the four days, participants learned about and discussed some of the fundamental theoretical concepts of ICH, assembled an inventory of documented examples of ICH practices in Bamiyan, and conferred about practical measures to safeguard ICH.

Bamiyan Management Plan Workshop

The former site of two massive and ancient open-air Buddha statues, the Bamiyan Valley is one of Afghanistan’s most important World Heritage Sites. However,the property’s fragile archaeological and geological context has also earned it a ranking on the List of World Heritage in Danger. Over the last decade,emergency preservation efforts have been undertaken, but the site is strongly in need of a comprehensive overall management plan, especially now that a variety of development initiatives are currently underway.

To assist with the development of the ambitious plan, UNESCO organized a three-day workshop in Bamiyan to bring together the key stakeholders that manage different areas of development in the region. At the October 2018 workshop,representatives from a variety of government offices—including the ministries of Information and Communication; Development and Housing; Agriculture,Irrigation, and Livestock; and Rural Rehabilitation and Development—came together to discuss how the proposed Bamiyan Cultural Master Plan and the Strategic Master Plan could be harmonized with existing development plans.

Curriculum Reform Workshop Series

Improving the quality of and access to education is currently one of Afghanistan’s top priorities. One of the key policies the country is adopting in pursuit of this goal is an ambitious reform of the national general education curriculum. To date, the UNESCO Office in Kabul has been one of the strongest supporters of the Ministry of Education’s curriculum reform efforts.

In late September 2018, the Office organized a workshop, the first in an intended series of five, to strengthen and advance the reform work that has taken place so far. The workshop series is geared toward the members of the Ministry of Education’s Technical Working Group, and also involves a number of Ministry senior officials. Broad workshop objectives include finalizing the Curriculum Framework for General Education, the Afghan Life Competencies Framework, and the syllabi for a variety of subject areas, as well as developing guidelines and quality assurance frameworks for textbooks and learning resources.

In addition, each of the five workshops will explore an element that is central to the goal of curriculum reform, including student-centered teaching and learning, strategies for active learning, formative assessment, integrating life competencies with particular subject areas, and syllabus mapping and review.

IPDCtalks

In 2016 UNESCO designated September 28 as the International Day for Universal Access to Information. According to UNESCO, access to information is an essential human right that is necessary for the achievement of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. To commemorate this day in 2018, the UNESCO Office in Kabul held an IPDC talks event in early October.

Inspired by TED Talks and organized by UNESCO’s International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC), IPDC talks is a global event series that aims to spark an international discussion of how to foster open societies and create better laws and policies in support of access to information. Speakers at the Kabul IPDC talks event included members of the media and civil society and representatives from Afghanistan’s government and the UN.