The Eastern Forests Complex in Afghanistan runs from the border of Badakhshan in the north down to Paktika Province in the southeast of Afghanistan and contains some of the last remaining temperate coniferous forest in the Greater Himalayan mountain chain. Tree cover, including both mixed oak and coniferous forests, tends naturally to be more continuous in this eastern region where precipitation is higher and less erratic than elsewhere in Afghanistan due to being on the edge of the Indian subcontinent monsoon. This habitat is so important to the world’s biodiversity index that it is now considered a Global 200 Ecoregion and is referred to as the Western Himalayan Temperate Forest. It is impressive in its biodiversity, including populations of snow leopards (Uncia uncia), at least five other wild cat species including Persian leopards (Panthera pardus), jungle cats (Felis chaus), Himalayan lynx (Lynx lynx), leopard cats (Prionailurus bengalensis) and Pallas’ cats (Otocolobus manul), jackals (Canis aureus), crested porcupines (Hystrix indica), yellow-throated martens (Martes flavigula), Asiatic black bears (Ursus thibetanus), wild boars (Sus scrofa) and a host of ungulate species such as Siberian ibex (Capra sibirica), markhor (Capra falconeri) and urial (Ovis orientalis).
However, the entire eastern forests region is under tremendous pressure from deforestation. Trees are cut at unsustainable rates especially in the lower-lying oak forests, for fuel for homes and for domestic animal food. High-value timbers such as cedar are also cut to supply international markets. Additional demands on wildlife populations come from the heavy hunting levels seen across the region, for food and for the illegal wildlife trade in furs and other animal products.
WCS has been working in the eastern forests since 2006 and made significant progress in Nuristan Province. This is despite challenges to the security of the WCS staff and our counterparts. The forests’ location in the sensitive and conflict-prone border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan makes monitoring deforestation and studying the region’s biodiversity very difficult. The physical environment is also particularly tough, with thick forests and unstable terrain making survey work complicated to plan and conduct. Project targets have needed to remain as flexible as possible to accommodate the security situation.
Partly due to Nuristan's history and partly due to its inaccessible terrain, residents of Nuristan have resisted external interference in the past, and have preserved a renowned independence of mind. A traditional knowledge of sustainable natural resource management in combination with a relatively strong community governance and jurisdiction system have fortunately provided good preconditions for community based environmental conservation. However, among local communities, there is still a distinct lack of awareness towards the benefits of biodiversity and potential livelihood opportunities. There is also an almost total absence of central governance across the entire area, which makes the introduction of conservation-orientated policies developed at the national level difficult.
To begin determining the status of the region’s biodiversity and its apparent value to the country, WCS teams started the first biological surveys within eastern Afghanistan in over 30 years during 2006 (and the region’s first-ever winter survey). Survey techniques including basic identification of scats and tracks, mark-recapture sampling and small mammal trapping, fecal DNA analysis and the use of camera trap technology.
The impressive collection of baseline data collected from the field sites along with remote sensing data have been used by the WCS GIS unit back in Kabul to detect changes in the forests within Nuristan and Kunar provinces, estimate rates of forest decline, classify remaining forest cover and identify particular areas of interest in terms of biodiversity. As well as helping to focus resources in terms of further wildlife and forest studies, information from the GIS analysis has been invaluable in demonstrating the link between the degradation in forest cover and political change over three decades. It has therefore helped to galvanize support from the current government for developing decisive policies in the areas of forestry and wildlife trade.
In parallel to studies continuing in the east, WCS research teams back in Kabul started investigating the timber trade at the market end. The teams visited trading areas across Kabul and examined certain parameters such as species traded, the volumes involved, primary timber sources and market value. Furthermore, the impact from the demand in Kabul on wildlife products from the east was investigated by the WCS Wildlife Trade team, the results of which continue to assist policy makers in drafting appropriate wildlife protection legislation. This work has also helped to focus education efforts and training on combating this burgeoning trade in wildlife. WCS facilitated the formation of the Environment Shura in Nuristan which has since issued rules banning hunting in the Waygal Valley of Nuristan Province. Furthermore, community conservation outreach and consultation meetings have been developed by WCS in two key districts in central Nuristan.