The illegal trade in wildlife presents one of the most acute challenges to fauna and flora conservation across the world today. Second only to the illicit trade in narcotics, wildlife trade is estimated to be worth billions of dollars annually and to involve more than 350 million plant and animal species every year. The trade has become unsustainable, mostly due to a burgeoning human population with increased access to wildlife habitats, a growing number of available weaponry in conflict-affected areas such as Afghanistan, and a huge rise in consumer demand at all socioeconomic levels. This global-scale trade has brought with it other associated risks too, including an increased chance of disease transmission within or across species and a rise in the introduction of exotic invasive organisms.
These problems are taking a heavy toll on wildlife populations in Afghanistan, with the country suffering from high levels of illegal hunting and wildlife trade. In Afghanistan, wildlife is typically hunted and traded for meat, supposed medicinal properties, skulls and horns for trophy purposes, and for skin and fur. In the 1970s, the most common species found within Kabul’s fur shops were the red fox (Vulpes vulpes), jungle cat (Felis chaus) and jackal (Canis aureus). In more recent times, there has also been a worrying rise in lynx (Lynx lynx), wolf (Canis lupus), leopard (Panthera pardus) and even snow leopard (Uncia uncia) pelts. Survey results from WCS have indicated the significant role of the international community in driving the demand for wildlife furs now, particularly by military and development personnel.
In Afghanistan, certain species are also taken from the wild and sold live for the pet trade. The keeping of songbirds as pets is an old Afghan tradition, and the majority of buyers at Kabul’s busy Ka Farushi Bird Market are local Afghans. There is also a growing trade in certain raptor species from Afghanistan, to supply those buyers on the Arabian Peninsula involved in the lucrative sport of falconry.
Despite these traditions and trends, Afghanistan is making progress towards curtailing wildlife trade within and across its borders. In 1986, the country ratified the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES), which together with individual country laws, regulates the export and import of many species. Further, Afghanistan’s Environment Law and the Presidential Decree (issued in 2005 and again in 2010) forbid the hunting, sale or exportation of listed wildlife species.
To help boost these efforts, WCS has maintained an active involvement at a number of levels. Since the development and enforcement of wildlife trade-related laws and institutions has been so critical over the past five years, WCS teams have been primarily focused on legal work at the central government level. In 2006, there appeared to be few laws specifically addressing wildlife, wildlife trade, or hunting. As a useful first step, WCS assisted the Government in drafting suitable legislation for allowing CITES to be properly implemented in Afghanistan. This new legislative proposal – currently being reviewed by the Government – is called the Protected Species and Wildlife Trade Regulations and incorporates several provisions for CITES compliance.
WCS also facilitated the selection of a Management Authority and Scientific Authority in Afghanistan to ensure appropriate conformity with CITES systems. To enhance their capacity and knowledge regards trade legislation, WCS worked with the CITES Secretariat to include Afghan officials in the 57th Meeting of the CITES Standing Committee in Geneva during 2008 and again for the tri-annual Meeting of all CITES Parties in 2010.
WCS also continues to provide technical assistance to the Government for introducing a listing program that evaluates the status of species and affords them a designation of either ‘Protected’ (prohibiting all hunting and trade of their derivatives) or ‘Harvestable’ (where species can only be harvested on the basis of permits or management agreements). As of May 2011, a total of 48 species are now on the country’s official Protected Species List. A further 90 species are currently awaiting evaluation and protected status approval.
To provide concrete data on the scale of the issue, WCS has conducted several wildlife trade surveys across the country. During 2006, WCS began work to estimate the impact of domestic and international demand on wildlife from the Eastern Forests region (a main source area of Afghanistan’s traded wildlife) and to assess the level of hunting prevalent in Afghan culture. The results constituted the first comprehensive examination of hunting and trade in Afghanistan since 2001, pointing to a number of new developments in trade patterns and wildlife abundance that has helped to focus harvest regulations. WCS has also been investigating current logging practices in the Eastern Forests and the size and value of the timber and firewood trade in Kabul. The results are alarming and strongly suggest that the timber trade is continuing at an unchanged rate.
Wildlife trade also has an influence on the spread of infectious diseases, which directly threaten wildlife, livestock and human populations. For over three years, WCS veterinary and legal teams have been working together to determine the contribution of trade towards disease transmission in Afghanistan, involving regular assessments at Kabul Zoo, local wildlife product merchants and Ka Farushi Bird Market. In 2007, WCS staff also traveled to Mazar-e-Sharif in the northern province of Balkh to investigate the occurrence and extent of the falcon trade there. All of these surveys provide the country with more data to monitor and evaluate the risks to public health as a result of wildlife trade.
These surveys also act as a tool to direct appropriate education initiatives towards local groups, government authorities and the international community (including the military forces). The international community in Afghanistan appears to be the driving force behind the growing wildlife trade and are the major consumers of wildlife furs and products in Kabul. WCS has therefore stepped up a public diplomacy campaign to educate this audience about Afghanistan’s wildlife using various materials and communication methods. Small cards and posters detailing the threats to wildlife have been produced and are currently displayed in popular restaurants, Provincial Reconstruction Team bases, Kabul Airport, military bases, and other key locations. Several advertisements, editorials and articles have also been featured in expatriate magazines and Afghan newspapers. Furthermore, to encourage full participation of foreign governments, WCS wrote to all governments represented in Afghanistan about the problem of wildlife trade, including a copy of the poster and an identification guide to wildlife products restricted for international trade.
In terms of an improvement to the enforcement measures on the ground, WCS has achieved a multitude of successes in reducing the export of wildlife products out of the country and has responded to numerous reports of suspected wildlife trade over the past five years. This has involved comprehensive training of Military Police at Bagram Air Base and Military Market, Camp Eggers and Camp Phoenix, Kabul Airport customs authorities, airport police, staff at the US Embassy, and fur traders from one of Kabul’s main shopping streets. Training topics have included skin and fur identification and the legal implications of wildlife trade. Furthermore, WCS and the US Department of State have conducted multiple surveys of the bazaars at Bagram, International Security Assistance Force Headquarters and Camp Eggers, helping police identify hundreds of restricted fur items and remove them from sale. WCS is also assisting the traders in marketing their stores in exchange for an agreement not to sell illegal furs in the future. The selling point for these dealers is the economic benefit from attracting those internationals who only wish to purchase legal and environmentally-friendly products.
Recently, the Afghanistan Wildlife Trade Team has been working closely with WCS Global staff to implement a Department of Defense Legacy Resources Management Contract for the US Military. Materials and information have been sent direct from Afghanistan in order to create wildlife training materials for US soldiers, and to ensure military personnel are trained on wildlife issues pre-deployment and once they arrive in-country. WCS staff are also in the process of designing an educational website on wildlife trade issues for US Military personnel serving abroad.