Photograph courtesy WCS Afghanistan

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A common palm civet spotted in Afghanistan.

Photograph courtesy WCS Afghanistan

Afghanistan Bright Spot: Wildlife Surviving in War Zones

First survey in decades reveals surprising number of bears, porcupines.

Despite decades of deadly fighting among humans, many of Afghanistan's mammals are doing surprisingly well in the country's remaining forests, according to a new study.

Recent biological surveys in the remote and war-torn Nuristan Province, which lies along Afghanistan's eastern border with Pakistan, have revealed sightings and other strong evidence of several species, including Asiatic black bears, gray wolves, and leopard cats.

Scientists weren't sure that these species had survived in Afghanistan since the last surveys of the region in the 1970s.

"It's great news to learn that these animals are still here," said Peter Zahler, who launched the Wildlife Conservation Society's Afghanistan program in 2006.

Bears, Leopard Cats, and More

Between 2006 and 2009, teams spotted the species via camera traps, studied DNA evidence left behind in droppings, and looked for animals during transect surveys through the country's last forest ecosystems.

For example, in the case of the black bear, scientists took 45 photographs—as well as 5 camera-trap pictures—observed 18 individuals, and collected 16 scat samples over the study period. The leopard cat was more elusive, with only three individuals photographed and very few caught via camera traps.

The most commonly recorded species was the Indian crested porcupine, with either direct or indirect evidence of more than 280 individuals over the study period. Also oft-observed were the red fox, the grey wolf, and the golden jackal.

Other species detected included rhesus macaques, yellow-throated martens, and even a few domestic cats.

Unexpectedly, the scientists also saw a few common palm civets, catlike mammals that had never before been documented in Afghanistan.

The rugged forests of Nuristan are probably the most biologically diverse part of Afghanistan, in part because Indian Ocean monsoons bring moisture that's lacking in many other areas of the country, noted Zahler, who was not directly part of the study team.

Afghanistan Animals Not Out of the Woods

But the good news comes with several caveats.

For example, satellite studies show that Nuristan's forest cover has been greatly reduced during the past two decades, and it's still disappearing today.

"If this continues, I think we'll see the last of the larger animals disappear from the area," Zahler said. "We were delighted that there is wildlife here, but its long-term survival is still very much in question."

Some deforestation is the result of people cutting trees for fuel or building materials, but the bulk of forest loss is driven by timber industries, which are able to operate with little oversight or regulation in the politically unstable region, Zahler said.

The violence has "created a lack of management," he said. "It's not complete lawlessness, but a lot of cultural institutions have been degraded to the point where it's more of a free-for-all—which I think has greatly accelerated the drain on natural resources."

And when local people sell timber rights for a pittance, Zahler added, it's not only animals that suffer—people also lose precious resources.

"With the forest clear-cut, they lose the ability to build houses and find firewood in the winter. They lose mushrooms and pine nuts and everything that they depend on for local sale and for food," he explained.

"The communities understand this and want help with the sustainable management of these forest resources, and we've made some inroads in Nuristan communities [to] help them manage these resources, on which they are directly dependent."

War and Conservation: Unlikely Partners

In places like Afghanistan, where human misery is a major concern, the environment often takes a backseat.

But conservation biologist and author Thor Hanson, who was not involved in the recent study, said conservationists need to work in conflict zones, because these regions harbor some of the planet's most important habitats.

For example, Hanson has co-authored a study showing how wars are usually located in species-rich areas.

"If you look at the overlap between biological diversity and the locations of wars in the second half of the 20th century, we found that 80 percent of those major armed conflicts occurred within recognized global biodiversity hot spots," he said.

Hanson added that this correlation means some of the world's most important conservation work is based in dangerous areas, where most people don't—or can't—give environmental concerns top priority.

"The practical reality for conservation groups is that we pull out of areas when things get hot. But where groups have tried to stay engaged by supporting local people, we find that it can actually make a real difference in biodiversity outcomes over the course of a conflict," he said.

The Wildlife Conservation Society's Zahler agreed that keeping Afghanistan's wildlife safe is an important way to help keep the peace.

"It's not just about bears and leopards—it's about natural resources that people depend on, and wildlife is just an example. Losing those resources means that communities are going to fall apart, because they won't be able to support themselves.

"So helping them manage those resources is an important part of maintaining stability and security in a country like Afghanistan."

The Afghanistan-animals research, published recently in the journal Oryx, was supported in part by USAID.