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.

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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.

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.

Conservation Is the Top Priority for These 3 Organizations

When you look at the mission statements of most of the NGOs currently working in Afghanistan, the objectives tend to be what you would expect from organizations focused on helping a country rebuild after decades of conflict—achieving political and economic stability, increasing access to quality education, and improving health care. However, a small but passionate collection of organizations are dedicating themselves to what might seem, under the circumstances, like a surprising priority: environmental conservation.

WCSlogoOr is it so surprising? In an article from 2011, members of the Wildlife Conservation Society countered the perception that conservation work in conflict zones is just a distraction from more urgent issues by offering an insightful examination of the ways in which contemporary conservation projects can make an important contribution to the mission of stabilization. The article points out that in the 21st century, environmental conservation has evolved into an interdisciplinary, multitasking enterprise. No longer carried out in isolation, efforts to preserve species and wild areas are increasingly being conducted hand-in-hand with economic advancement opportunities for the people who live near and among these wild creatures and places. As a result, conservation work is proving to be an important tool for helping developing nations build civil societies and sustainable economic opportunities.

While the Wildlife Conservation Society is perhaps the largest and best-known entity dedicated to environmental work in Afghanistan, there are a number of other local and international organizations engaging in conservation projects on a smaller but no less committed scale. These organizations include the following three:

 

  1. The Center for Middle Eastern Plants

Established in 2009 under the umbrella of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, the Center for Middle Eastern Plants (CMEP) is one of the world’s leading authorities on the Middle Eastern environment. With a mission to help local partners tackle complex environmental issues, CMEP creates and implements projects across the Middle East that are designed to leave pragmatic, environmentally sustainable legacies. CMEP’s services include planning, surveying, landscaping, capacity development, and conservation efforts.

CMEP has been working in Afghanistan ever since the organization started. Over the last decade, the government of Afghanistan has made a commitment to environmental conservation and the sustainable use of biological diversity, as evidenced by the country’s recent signing of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and other similar actions. In recent years, CMEP has been an important partner for Afghanistan, helping the country to build capacity and knowledge to better honor its commitments under the CBD. Working with a range of local partners, CMEP has helped to develop an ex situ conservation strategy for the Kabul University Botanic Garden, created and implemented a biodiversity research skills training program at Kabul University, and provided training and support for IUCN Red Listing (the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species is the world’s most comprehensive inventory of at-risk plant and animal species). CMEP also runs online botany courses to help Afghans, as well as citizens of other Middle Eastern countries, to learn more about native plant species.

 

Afghanistan

 

  1. Rural Green Environment Organization

Founded in 2002, the Rural Green Environment Organization (RGEO) has helped to dramatically transform the environmental narrative in the northeastern province of Badakhshan. In the early 1990s, the province’s natural resources were all but depleted following the decade-long Soviet occupation—a serious problem given that 80 percent of Afghans depend on natural resource-based activities like farming, herding, and small-scale mining for their livelihoods. Faced with this challenging situation, Haji Awrang, the then-governor of Badakhshan’s Tagab district, developed a recovery plan that, in a forward-thinking way, took both social and ecological needs into account.

Today, Awrang’s legacy is upheld by RGEO, which continues to engage local communities in projects and initiatives that benefit the environment and the economy. With the support of Badakhshan residents, RGEO has banned illegal fishing and hunting; built a thriving system of tree nurseries, forest guard patrols, and reforesting projects; protected 2 kilometers of river; built 5 kilometers of irrigation canals and 120,000 meters of farm terracing; created more than 6,150 jobs and work-for-food programs; and incorporated environmental education into programs at local schools and mosques. In 2015 RGEO was awarded the prestigious Equator Prize by the United Nations Development Program in recognition of its outstanding environmental stewardship.

 

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  1. The Heinrich Böll Foundation

An environmental think tank and policy institute based in Germany, the Heinrich Böll Foundation works with 160 project partners in more than 60 countries worldwide to develop and implement green visions, projects, and policy reform. The foundation has worked in Afghanistan since 2012 to address the urgent issue of resource depletion.

Afghanistan is a country rich in natural resources, but due to decades of conflict and political instability, the use of these resources has seldom been effectively managed. As a result, local communities and the environment have suffered. The Heinrich Böll Foundation is working to improve transparency in resource depletion through an environmental and natural resource monitoring network, which aims to ensure that resource development projects comply with international standards of environmental and social sustainability. Today, the network has more than 50 members and is an important contact for government officials.