Since the start of WCS’ work in Afghanistan in 2006, our teams have witnessed a range of environmental issues, including rapid population growth and the associated loss to habitat that results from human and livestock encroachment, and the increased contact between human, domestic animals and wildlife populations. Across the country and particularly in the more rural areas, there is a distinct lack of awareness regarding the potential for zoonoses to inflict significant harm to humans, domestic stock, wildlife populations and the overall health of the ecosystem. By extension, Afghanistan’s economy has also been affected, with epidemics such as Foot-and-Mouth Disease and Brucellosis causing widespread damage to public health, livestock longevity and community livelihoods.
The other major threat is the low levels of capacity, knowledge, equipment and skills, particularly within the veterinary profession, when it comes to monitoring, evaluating and tackling the problems associated with the emerging human-livestock-wildlife interface.
The WCS Ecosystem Health Team has been working in several areas across Afghanistan to address these key challenges. The main areas of focus for the team are the Wakhan Corridor, Bamyan Province, Takhar Province, Kabul (particularly with the Central Veterinary Diagnostic and Research Laboratory [CVDRL], Kabul Zoo, Ka Farushi bird market and at Kole Hashmat Khan wetland), Mazar-e Sharif in Balkh Province, and Dasht-e-Nawar wetlands in Ghazni Province.
Since the status of wildlife in Afghanistan depends almost entirely upon the health of the ecosystem they inhabit, WCS’s approach lies first in studying the extent of the issue such as rangeland use and grazing patterns by local herders, or the nature and extent of contact between domestic and wild populations, including the possibility of disease spillover. Along with their government and community counterparts, the team studies the status of major diseases in the area and builds up a thorough understanding of their epidemiology, often through household questionnaires. Fecal analysis studies are also conducted to determine stress level and prevalence of macroparasites in local wildlife populations such as Marco Polo sheep (Ovis ammon polii). The team then uses a combination of partners and stakeholders both in Afghanistan and further afield to carry out advanced serological screening on domestic and wild animals. Tests are done against a variety of diseases including brucellosis, peste des petits ruminants and chlamydophilosis. Exposure of livestock to a variety of economically relevant pathogens including bluetongue disease, Q fever and toxoplasmosis was confirmed for the first time in Afghanistan thanks to this health initiative. WCS has also performed the first surveys for Avian Influenza in wild birds and poultry in the provinces of Bamyan, Ghazni, Kabul, Badakhshan and northern Takhar.
Once an assessment has been made, the team then sets about implementing mitigation measures to attempt to control the risks to wildlife populations. In 2009 for example, the health team began a large-scale Foot-and-Mouth Disease vaccination campaign within livestock populations in the Wakhan. Foot-and-Mouth Disease appears to be a disease of particular concern both from an economic perspective and because some wild ungulate populations are very vulnerable to infection. Furthermore, effective record-keeping and a comprehensive disease-specific database used in combination with GIS analyses have helped to identify risk factors for disease emergence and predict upcoming outbreaks. This enables stakeholders and government agencies to make informed management decisions to limit or control disease interactions in the future.
WCS works continually alongside community members, local and student veterinarians, the CVDRL in Kabul and our governmental counterparts to implement these projects, helping to build capacity among the animal health and husbandry community along the way. This training is critical to ensure sustainability in our approach, as it is important that the larger Afghan health community including counterparts in the government ministries and provincial offices, and even members from rural communities are given the opportunity to replicate and continue with the Team’s work themselves, including vaccinating and treating livestock. The WCS Afghanistan Ecosystem Health Team also works closely with the WCS Afghanistan Legal and Policy teams for developing policies to reduce and control hunting practices and the illicit wildlife trade, both of which play a major role in disease transmission.
Apart from WCS, there are no other programs in Afghanistan that examine the links between diseases shared by both wildlife and livestock, and this ecosystem health team (consisting of three veterinarians and one biologist) constitutes the only Afghan expertise in this field. Moreover, most of the areas of work are very remote, with very limited access to veterinary care under normal circumstances. Thus, as well as directly helping to conserve wildlife populations, this work also helps to improve the livelihoods of local herders by diminishing the risk of disease introduction within their own herds.