With only 4,000 left in the wild, Afghanistan’s snow leopards are a priceless resource.
Studying and protecting them is at the heart of our programmes in the Wakhan Corridor, where UNDP, with funding from the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), works with government, NGOs and local people to preserve the Wakhan area for future generations.
As many as 450 snow leopard killings are reported each year — according to a recent report from animal trade NGO Traffic.
The killings happen for three main reasons:
50% — revenge attacks by farmers tyring to protect their livestock
20% — caught in traps intended for other animals
20% — illegally hunted for their fur
A lot more needs to be done to make sure that people and snow leopards can live together — including in the Wakhan Corridor, which is home to nearly 150 snow leopards and 17,000 people.
The people of Wakhan are mostly Wakhi and Kyrgyz farmers living at subsistence levels of poverty. This is the least developed part of one of the least developed countries in the world.
These farmers’ animals are often the only thing standing between them and destitution, so they have to do everything they can to protect their flocks from predators.
Everyone one of us would kill a snow leopard to protect our own children and that is exactly what these farmers are sometimes forced to do.
If they lose their flocks, how can they feed and clothe their kids, or send them to school?
One solution is building corrals to keep the livestock safe, so there is no need to hunt and kill the big cats. UNDP has supported the building of 330 enclosures for communities and individual households in Wakhan.
To help prevent accidental trapping and encourage communities to value the snow leopards, we’ve funded public consultations and community meetings.
At these meetings, we raise awareness of Afghanistan’s ban on hunting snow leopards — and on how the leopards are key to the future of Wakhan.
The big cats are both an important part of the area’s biodiversity and a draw for tourists (which is why we are also supporting the construction of a nearby tourism centre and training local people to staff and run it).
Education programmes are held in schools, too, reaching nearly 1,000 children, teachers, community members and local government officials to date.
But education is not enough. The snow leopard habitat has to be patrolled, and we have to learn more about them through tracking and scientific analysis. This is where the rangers come in.
UNDP has helped to train and equip 50 rangers in Wakhan, including four dedicated to tracking and protecting the snow leopards.
It’s not easy work, or even that safe. Snow leopards are shy and sometimes you have to trek for weeks, through freezing hills, to set up camera traps or collar individuals. You also have to face armed poachers and angry farmers.
But thanks to photographs and data gathered by the rangers, we now know that, per kilometre, there are more snow leopards in Wakhan than almost anywhere else on earth.
All these individual activities are making a difference, but there is one thing that ties them all together, and will ensure the future sustainability of the Wakhan area and its amazing biodiversity — not just the snow leopards but also its Marco Polo sheep, ibex and other amazing animals and plant . This is the Wakhan National Park Management Plan.
This plan brings together everyone with a stake in the area, including UNDP, Afghanistan’s National Environment Protection Agency (NEPA), the Ministry of Agriculture (MAIL), international and local NGOs and local people.
Designed by experts and currently going through a round of community consultations, where it is finalised next year it will:
- Set down who should do what to preserve Wakhan National Park
- Identify areas where activities are banned or allowed, to prevent overgrazing, illegal logging, poaching and other destructive activities
- Ensure the government and the people agree on and implement protection measures, tourism, research and the sustainable use of local resources, including plants and animals
- Expand the coverage of protected areas, which has already doubled in the last year alone
If the plan works well, the park will be protected and everyone will benefit. And it’s the snow leopards that will show us whether it does. Big cats can only survive in a well-balanced ecosystem, so if their numbers increase, it means things are going well.
In that sense, the snow leopards are a symbol of hope for the Wakhan. The people here may be poor but they are rich in resources. By using those resources well, they can prosper into tomorrow without damaging the environment they have today.
Our work in Wakhan is part of a US$7m UNDP Biodiversity Project, funded by GEF. Over the next three years, hand-in-hand with NEPA, MAIL and the Wildlife Conservation Society, UNDP will:
- Support the creation of an Afghanistan Parks and Wildlife Authority to administer all of Afghanistan’s protected areas, not just Wakhan
- Boost biodiversity by supporting the co-management of these areas by government agencies and local people
- Promote sustainable land management so that local people can derive maximum benefit from natural resources at minimum cost to the environment
For more about UNDP’s Biodiversity project, see: http://bit.ly/2eu3OaH
For more UNDP’s work in Afghanistan generally, see: