June 27, 2008

Endangered Afghan Snow Leopard Threatened By Poachers

Snow leopards in Afghanistan have barely survived extinction despite three decades of war, but now they're facing a new threat: foreigners who are flocking in to rebuild the war-torn country.

Snow leopard furs are a common sight up for sale on both international military bases and at tourist bazaars in the capital. Afghanistan has had a complete hunting ban on the few remaining snow leopards since 2002. Extremely poor Afghans regularly break poaching laws to sell the pelts as pricey souvenirs to tourists with ready cash.

The fur coats and pelts of the nation's endangered animals are readily available in Kabul's main tourist trap. They are found hidden between souvenir stores on Chicken Street.

"This one is only $300," one shopkeeper said and produced a snow leopard pelt from the back of his shop.

"It was shot several times," he said and pointed to several patches of fur sewn together.

"The better ones are only shot once. The skin remains intact," the shopkeeper said. His assistant brought out a larger pelt with no patches; he said that sold for $900.

Many Kabul shopkeepers said they had more furs at home. They also maintained they had sold furs to tourists in recent weeks.

One shopkeeper who wanted to remain anonymous said it wasn't hard to sneak the illegal fur to other places. He said, "No problem! We hide the fur inside blankets and send it back to your country."

Snow leopards in Afghanistan, along with several other animals are listed as endangered or threatened under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

It states that any person who is caught knowingly transporting a fur across an international border faces a large fine. If convicted in the United States, it could result in a $100,000 fine and one year in jail.

Dr. Peter Smallwood, Afghanistan country director for the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society said it is hard to know the exact numbers of snow leopards still alive in Afghanistan due to the creatures' elusive nature and the lack of any case studies during the last thirty years of war. Smallwood said, however, we do know the snow leopard is endangered.

"If you look historically at Afghanistan, Afghanistan actually had more big cat species than the entire continent of Africa," said Clayton Miller, Environmental Advisor to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

It is estimated there are now about 100 to 200 snow leopards left in Afghanistan. In comparison, Bhutan has the same number of leopards, but has three times less habitat area.

Miller said, "Now the only cat species that is not on the threatened and endangered species list is the domestic cat."

The International Snow Leopard Trust (ISLT) said the estimated number of snow leopards in the world is between 3,500 and 7,000.

Afghanistan's flora and fauna has been destroyed by changes in infrastructure, movements of refugees, modern weaponry, extreme poverty and a lack of law enforcement. Drought and deforestation have also contributed to the decline.

Snow leopards in Afghanistan mainly live near the extreme northeast of the country. Many are populated in the remote sliver of land called the Wakhan Corridor that separates Tajikistan from Pakistan and extends all the way to China.

Humans sparsely populate the mountainous Wakhan but it is a vital link for the snow leopard.

"The Wakhan is a critical area because ... you're going to get snow leopards going between Tajikistan, Pakistan and China through the Wakhan valley, so it's a key, key area. Its importance far outweighs its physical size," Smallwood said.

When the U.S. embassy's Miller first moved to Afghanistan he discovered a widespread problem. The shopkeeper's seemingly unregulated practice of selling endangered animal parts to foreigners.

"There were threatened and endangered species being marketed to international personnel, not only military but aid mission folks and anybody visiting the bazaar," said Miller.

In a bid to cease the poaching of snow leopards, the U.S. embassy and the WCS targeted the buyers.

"We decided that one of the quickest ways of trying to address this issue was to go after the demand. The only individuals that are actually able to purchase these things were internationals," Miller told Reuters.

Most Afghans could never afford the snow leopard pelts, which can sell for up to $1500.

Since August last year, Miller and the WCS have been educating military and civilian staff. They focused their training on those in charge of mail services. They taught them how to recognize endangered and threatened animal furs and how to conduct "raids" on U.S. military bases.

Miller said the raids have yielded illegal products from endangered species including snow leopards. He stressed the U.S. military was very "cooperative" in trying to fight the trade.

The U.S. military said it had managed to "virtually eliminate" any illegal trade of these products on the base after two weeks of their first training session on a base just outside Kabul.

Local traders are issued a warning on military bases if they are caught selling the furs and if caught a second time, they are barred from ever returning again.

Smallwood said it is easier to disseminate the information to the military because of its structured nature.

"The harder part is trying to deliver the message to the rest of the international community, which we're working on," he said.

But the threats to the snow leopard still remain in this war-torn place.

"With numbers this low I wouldn't want to say ...if we just fix this problem the rest is fine. All of these problems need to be dealt with. Losing 10 animals could be as much as 10 percent of the population," Smallwood said.