Last year, a snow leopard leapt into Hassan Beg’s corral and slaughtered 12 of his sheep — a massive blow to his family’s livelihood in a place that measures wealth in livestock. Beg wanted to shoot the animal, to save his sheep. Fifteen years ago, that’s what he would have done.
“But now, I knew I’d be arrested. I knew the conservation people wouldn’t allow it,” Beg said.
He isn’t the only one conflicted about the rare animals. In the village of Qal-a-Panja, many residents complain about snow leopard attacks. Jama Gul lost six sheep and four goats. Faizal lost three sheep and a goat.
The men say that they value the corridor’s snow leopards but that in a place where survival can be difficult, they are entitled to do what’s necessary to keep their animals alive. Residents sometimes clash with the newly initiated Afghan conservationists, as they did in a recent meeting.
“The Wildlife Conservation Society is helping the snow leopards survive, but they’re very dangerous. They’re killing our animals,” Faizal said.
“They are killing your animals because for decades you hunted all of their prey. They have nothing else to eat,” responded Hafizullah Noori, a research assistant with the conservation society.
The split seen between the two groups exists in some form wherever the Wildlife Conservation Society has worked in Afghanistan. But the biologists say it’s typically not a big problem.
“We see a bit of this, but really, looking across the six years I’ve been in Wakhan, it’s insignificant, and on the whole there’s very good support for conservation,” said Anthony Simms, a technical adviser to the conservation society. “This can be demonstrated by the fact, for example, that there’s virtually no hunting these days.”
The organization has done research showing that snow leopard attacks account for less than 0.1 percent of yearly livestock losses in the Wakhan.
The group has helped create some of Afghanistan’s first “protected areas” — places of particular biological importance, where the environment remains pristine. In Bamian province, one such area draws thousands of domestic tourists every year. In the Wakhan, biologists say, hundreds of square miles of nearly unpopulated grassland present another opportunity to preserve something wholly unique in Afghanistan. One protected area has been formalized.
“Wakhan is well worth protecting for the sake of Afghanistan’s natural and cultural heritage,” Simms said.
The last time that conservation was discussed in the Wakhan was in the 1970s, when King Mohammed Zahir Shah opened a luxury hunting lodge for Western visitors. Now, posters of Afghanistan plastered in embassies abroad bear the photos of the new parks, unspoiled wilderness that the country is eager to promote.
Zahir Shah’s grandson, Mustafa Zahir, is the head of the country’s nascent National Environmental Protection Agency, overseeing conservation efforts.
“There’s no place in the world like this,” he said on a recent visit to the Wakhan.
But the future of Afghanistan’s protected areas is as uncertain as the country’s fragile political or security situation, and the work of conservationists remains incomplete. Snow leopard pelts can still be easily bought in downtown Kabul. Last year, a border police commander stole a wild Marco Polo sheep from the Wakhan and tied it to a tree in his front yard.
Karmal knows all about the challenges facing his job and the cause he’s come to champion. But he’s still proud of what he’s done, tracing the footsteps of the species he knows well.
“It’s important work,” he said. “This is a population that matters to us, and to everyone.”