As a conservation-orientated model of work that could be expanded across the country, WCS has been concentrating efforts in Badakhshan Province, northeastern Afghanistan since 2006. The main area of work is along the Wakhan Corridor - a 300 km long valley formed by the Panj River, which is seen on a country map as the eastern panhandle. The Corridor follows a narrow strip of land bordering Tajikistan, China and Pakistan, and it is here that the three magnificent mountain ranges of Central Asia unite – the Hindu Kush, the Pamirs and the Karakorams, forming the so-called “Pamir Knot”. The high-altitude valleys between these three ranges form the Afghan Pamir, known by locals as “the roof of the world”.
Within such a unique and isolated setting, the Corridor contains some spectacular landscapes. A host of globally-threatened and important species survive here, high up in the snow-capped, scree-covered slopes or down in the grassy valleys including the iconic Marco Polo sheep (Ovis ammon polii) (also the country’s national animal), urial (Ovis orientalis), Himalayan lynx (Lynx lynx), Siberian ibex (Capra ibex sibirica), Himalayan brown bear (Ursus arctos) and the snow leopard (Uncia uncia). The whole corridor is significant for biodiversity conservation and there are at least three potential protected areas that may be developed– the Big Pamir, Teggermansu and the Wakhjir Valley in the far eastern corner. These areas together ensure the Wakhan Corridor is recognized internationally as a region of importance for biodiversity. It contains two of the named Global 200 Ecoregions and provides the backdrop for numerous WCS wildlife and rangeland surveys conducted across the region over the past 5 years. WCS has initiated plans to designate the Big Pamir Wildlife Reserve as the region’s first protected area, and put in place a local organization to facilitate this.
Living side-by-side with this wildlife and in often extreme environmental conditions, are local communities that depend entirely on local resources. All along the Wakhan and Panj Rivers, and in the Upper (between Sarhad-e Broghil and Qala-e Panj) and Lower Wakhan zones (between Qala-e Panj and Ishkashim) are numerous villages that have been home to the native Wakhi people for more than 2,500 years. There are currently approximately 13,000 Wakhi living as agriculturalists along the corridor, farming the land and also participating in annual seasonal migrations with their livestock to and from high-altitude summer pastures in the Pamirs.
Another ethnic group from the Wakhan are the Kyrgyz nomads who make their homes in the “roof of the world”. They are Turkic pastoralists, originally from Mongolia, and shift camp seasonally with their livestock according to climatic conditions and summer/winter pasture availability. Currently, approximately 1,400 Kyrgyz live in the Afghan Pamir.
WCS’ main focus in the Wakhan Corridor and Badakhshan as a whole is to develop and maintain sustainable community tenure of the precious natural resources in the province and to ensure that benefits arising from the establishment of protected areas filter directly back to the local communities and support their livelihoods over the long-term. Much of this work centers on first creating and then strengthening community governance so that the local people are given the opportunity to sustainably manage their own resources. This includes training, mentoring, providing technical assistance to local communities and creating jobs that both directly boost resource management such as community ranger programs, and indirectly benefit the communities and land (within the ecotourism sector for example). WCS then helps to link these community governance institutions with Afghanistan’s government agencies so that the communities are empowered, and the government’s reach is expanded across the country.
The security situation in Badakhshan to date is calm. However there are always inherent logistical challenges in working within such remote locations as the Wakhan Corridor. The summer field season is short, from late June through to September followed by a bitterly cold winter. With such dramatic and unpredictable climatic conditions, conducting surveys, training programs and consultations with local communities and the government authorities is a constant challenge.
This unpredictability may get worse with the anticipated onset of climate change. Global warming will likely increase glacial retreat in the Wakhan-Pamirs and disrupt delicate mountain geodynamics, forming new high-altitude lakes and possibly increasing precipitation. With substantial glacial melt this would also increase the hazard potential in water basins further down the Wakhan Corridor and could even affect the economic and geopolitical stability of the region.
Badakhshan is also geographically far from the centre of power in Afghanistan, and linkages between local communities and central government are often weak. Enforcement of policies written back in Kabul, which are simply not able to take into account every local context, can be poor, leading to a continuation of conservation-negative attitudes, and further deterioration of the environment.
The philosophy that underpins much of WCS’ work in Badakhshan is that of community based natural resource management (CBNRM) since, to guarantee any kind of sustainable outcome for the wildlife here, community involvement is vital.
One of the first and most crucial steps has been to develop technical capacity and knowledge regarding resource management at community, district, provincial and national levels. From its base in Qala-e Panja, WCS has engaged all 14 schools throughout the Wakhan Corridor and encouraged a conservation-orientated approach through its Environmental Education Program. This includes English-language training for teachers, establishing school environmental committees and organizing activities such as environmentally-themed Parents' Day where the school children perform plays and presentations about wildlife conservation. WCS has also developed a successful ranger program that recruits and trains community rangers to monitor and protect wildlife. Ranger skills are developed in stages, being first taught the basics of patrolling and rangering, then conducting wildlife surveys and data collection, through to training new recruit rangers themselves. District and Provincial Government officers have also received training on topics such as wildlife health, the Environment Law and how to implement public outreach programs.
Running parallel to this capacity building, have been WCS efforts to put in place secure community governance institutions that can continue with natural resource management in the future. The Wakhan-Pamir Association (WPA) was established in 2009 and WCS continues to assist its growth as a Social Organization, and in attracting government and donor support through ecotourism and conservation initiatives. One of the WPA’s current projects is the development of the Big Pamir Wildlife Reserve for which they work closely alongside WCS and government to demarcate boundaries and develop a suitable management plan.
Work to secure vulnerable or important areas for protection will not be effective, however, unless communities are allowed the chance to prosper from the benefits – monetary and otherwise – that natural resource management at this level can bring. WCS has been working with the central government, local communities and organizations like WPA since 2009 to develop and implement a benefit-sharing process for protected areas across Afghanistan, allowing rural communities and government to profit fairly from conservation-generated revenue. Aside from direct financial benefits, WCS also promotes sustainable community livelihood development through introducing schemes such as fuel-efficient stoves for homes and schools, livestock depredation insurance, predator-proof livestock corrals, and ecotourism ventures for the community. Furthermore, teams in Wakhan have conducted several socio-economic surveys in order to define pastoralist and livestock movement patterns, and overall range usage.
Alongside work with the communities and institutions, WCS has also been surveying the wildlife and habitats along the Wakhan Corridor over the past four years, building up an extensive database on rangeland condition and status of the local wildlife populations. These surveys are conducted in conjunction with the community rangers and use modern technologies such as camera traps and DNA analysis. The results have been very revealing and have meant accurate distribution models for a number of key species have been disseminated to an international audience – the first time in over 30 years that wildlife data has been available from Afghanistan.