But this time, Karmal wasn’t carrying a gun. He held a metal snare that he would use to trap the animal. He was working for an environmental conservation organization attempting to better understand one of the most vulnerable species in the world. Once Karmal caught the animal, it would be tagged with a GPS collar and tracked as it traversed Afghanistan’s hinterlands.
When the Taliban was toppled nearly 12 years ago and U.S. forces surged into Afghanistan, a small number of biologists saw an opportunity on the margins of the war effort. The country’s far reaches had barely been examined and were thought to contain some of the world’s least-understood species. But studying them would require complex, and sometimes tense, negotiations with some of the world’s most isolated people.
“It was like a black box,” said biologist Christopher Shank, who worked in Afghanistan in the 1970s and returned after the fall of the Taliban.
When they arrived in the Wakhan Corridor, scientists learned that local hunters targeted snow leopard, ibex and Marco Polo sheep populations. The foreign experts met men like Karmal, who killed the animals for their pelts, for food or simply for sport.
But when the scientists set up motion-sensor cameras to gauge what kinds of animals remained, they were stunned. Persian leopards still lurked in the mountains of central Afghanistan, a fact that no biologist had surmised. Snow leopards had endured in the Wakhan, possibly becoming one of the world’s most vital populations of the species.
The biologists received funding from the U.S. government to set up small camps in the remote corridor and to hire wildlife rangers who would help monitor and protect the species of the Wakhan. That’s how Karmal ended up hunting snow leopards with a GPS collar instead of a gun.
“It still feels strange sometimes,” said Karmal, who uses one name, like many Afghans. “But it’s my job, and I like it.”
With fighting still heated a year before U.S. forces are due to pull out of Afghanistan, wildlife conservation is no doubt a peripheral concern to most American and Afghan officials. But in addition to its scientific importance, the effort is at the forefront of concerns in the Wakhan, where the Taliban has no presence. The preservation campaign is a source of jobs, pride and, occasionally, conflict.
If the Wildlife Conservation Society, the only source of Western funds in much of the Wakhan, loses financial support as the war winds down, dozens of wildlife rangers will lose their jobs. If hunters again prevail over conservationists, the trickle of foreign tourists could abruptly dry up.