Dr George Schaller – Senior Conservationist for WCS – has dedicated many years to studying the wild ungulates that live in the Himalayan region. His book entitled “Mountain Monarchs: Wild Sheep and Goats of the Himalaya” details the ecology of these hardy ungulates that inhabit the vast mountainous and forested regions across Central and Southern Asia. There are four wild sheep and goat species that WCS focuses its conservation efforts on within Afghanistan – the impressive Marco Polo sheep (Ovis ammon polii), its smaller relative the urial (Ovis orientalis), Siberian ibex (Capra sibirica) and markhor (Capra falconeri). Dr Schaller visited Afghanistan in 2004 to undertake WCS’s first detailed survey of the wild ungulates in the Afghan Pamirs, searching particularly for the elusive Marco Polo sheep. Since then, Dr Schaller and WCS have worked tirelessly to develop a network of protected areas throughout the country and a transboundary national park across Pakistan, Tajikistan, China and Afghanistan that would help protect 32,000 km of habitat for the largest of wild sheep and the other “mountain monarchs” that share its home.
With an absence of data on wildlife presence from the past three decades, the suspected range of many ungulate species in Afghanistan is currently based on historic surveys or from discussions with local people. As WCS continues its survey work within Kabul, Badakhshan, the Hazarajat Plateau and the Eastern Forests, we aim to update this knowledge and data and provide guidance to the government on conserving these flagship mountain species.
Urial – Ovis orientalis
Urial are wild sheep with large sickle-shaped horns that are prized by trophy hunters across their range. Their coloration is usually a reddish-grey, with a white belly and legs. Urial once occurred throughout the Hindu Kush and the mountainous areas of central and southwestern Afghanistan, from the Zebak mountains in the north to the Siyah Koh range in southwest. Major concentrations existed in Ajar Valley within the Hazarajat Plateau that also migrated seasonally to and from Band-e-Amir. However, urial face a number of threats to their continuing survival in Afghanistan. Populations compete directly with livestock for seasonal grazing areas, and indiscriminate hunting pressure – primarily for meat, trophies and wool – has caused dramatic declines in urial numbers. Current reports on their presence and abundance are mixed. On several past occasions, local people have indicated that urial remain numerous in certain areas of the Hazarajat Plateau, particularly given their ideal habitat of high-altitude, rolling hills and limited disturbance from peripheral human settlements. However, discussions with hunters and other communities suggested a significant decrease in numbers and even their extirpation from the area.
Nonetheless, WCS surveys since 2006 have revealed exciting discoveries of urial presence and ecology within the Hazarajat Plateau – particularly in the corridor area between Ajar and Band-e-Amir, the northern part of the plateau bounded roughly by Band-e-Amir, Saighan, Ajar Valley, southern Samangan, southeastern Saripul and Yakawlang-Sulej, and within Band-e-Amir itself. At least some urial appear to remain permanently within these units of land and move throughout them with predictable seasonal migrations. These movements are well understood by local people and are called nodal or port-e-ahu. There are two major port-e-ahu each year—one into the lambing areas in late May and one into the rutting area in mid-November. Rutting behavior, locally called shor-e-ahu, occurs from mid December to mid-January.
Hunting of urial is also still commonplace and the community consensus is that most hunting of ibex and urial is done by locals from the northern part of the Plateau. One man in Podinatu village in Ajar reportedly killed 18 urial and/or ibex in the first 6 months of 2009. Some urial also become habituated to grazing barley fields and are called ahu-e-jawkhor. These animals lose their fear and will return to barley fields even if some group members are shot. This is a major problem in Abtoogak on the northeastern boundary of Band-e-Amir National Park.
Relatively healthy populations of urial have also been sighted by WCS during seasonal surveys along the Wakhan Corridor, with populations concentrated around villages including Qazi Deh along the Panj River and Wargand where their main food source is in good supply.
It is clear from surveys and discussions with locals that the urial does still possess certain strongholds in central Afghanistan, although numbers are very low or even absent altogether in parts of their previous range within Badkahshan and the eastern forests. WCS continues to search for other currently unidentified populations of urial, and we are also beginning to put into place protection and enforcement measures around existing strongholds to ensure that urial will continue to survive in Afghanistan.
Ibex – Capra sibirica
The Siberian ibex is a large goat with long, scimitar-shaped horns that curl backwards from the head. Their coats are usually a chocolate-brown, helping the animals to blend in with their rocky, mountainous habitats. Ibex occur over much of the same area as Marco Polo sheep in the high mountain ranges of northeastern Afghanistan (although they do not rest or graze together) and were once believed to be the most widespread ungulate in the country. However, ibex are suffering from the same type and level of threats as the urial in terms of hunting for recreation and subsistence, competition with domestic livestock, disease transmission and possible alienation from critical water sources. Current ibex populations have likely been reduced to two major strongholds – in Badakhshan Province (within the Afghan Pamir and along the Panj River in the far northeast) and in Ajar Valley within Bamyan Province (Jawzari in Ajar Valley had long been considered as the major habitat of ibex in Bamyan). In fact, back in the 1970s, WCS Scientist Chris Shank surveyed Ajar Valley and estimated a population of 5,000 individuals. However, surveys conducted by WCS in 2006 placed the ibex population in Ajar Valley nearer to 100, a precipitous drop in numbers within the area. Local people informed WCS that due to war and cessation of management at Ajar, ibex had been displaced to new areas including Koh-e-Kanthal in southern Samangan province, and the canyon southwest from Hazar Chishma village on the northwestern portion of the Hazarajat Plateau.
Furthermore, ibex also historically occurred throughout much of Nuristan, with some populations believed to migrate between Badakhshan and the forested eastern region every year. However, recent WCS surveys in Nuristan provided no reliable evidence of their continued existence there.
Fortunately, WCS surveys in Badakhshan have revealed very promising signs of a healthy ibex population that is likely to be contiguous with neighboring populations from Tajikistan, Pakistan and China. During one such survey in the Wakhan, WCS teams made sightings of around 1,165 ibex individuals.
This is encouraging news for the ibex’s continued survival in Afghanistan, much of it due to local communities along the Wakhan becoming more involved in conservation-related programs such as community ranger training programs and environmental education in schools.
Markhor – Capra falconeri
The markhor is another large species of wild goat with a more limited range in the mountain ranges and coniferous forests of Central and Southern Asia. The coat is light brown to black, with males growing an impressive beard on their chin. A unique set of horns differs between the various sub-species but the horns generally begin close together on the skull, before spreading apart as they twist upwards into tight, open spirals. Three different sub-species are historically thought to exist throughout northern and eastern Afghanistan – the flare-horned markhor (C. f. falconeri), Tadjik markhor (C. f. heptneri) and straight-horned markhor (C. f. megaceros) – however, their current ranges appear to have contracted to the high mountain monsoon forests of Laghman and Nuristan provinces, and along the border with Tajikistan in far northeastern Afghanistan.
Similar to the other mountain monarchs, markhor have been particularly targeted by hunters for their meat and horns. In Nuristan, hunting markhor is even a sign of social status, and interviews with residents reveal that they are the most commonly hunted species there. Markhor are also at risk from severe habitat loss and population fragmentation across their range due to heavy logging and overgrazing.
Although reliable up-to-date population estimates are not available, numbers of markhor in Afghanistan are almost certainly declining, as they are throughout the surrounding region. However, WCS occupancy surveys in the eastern forests have provided solid evidence of continued markhor presence in the form of direct sightings and discussions with community representatives. Markhor often descend to the forests of Nuristan during the winter months, where fodder is still easily available to them, although this makes them even more vulnerable to poaching.
WCS works with the Afghan government and local communities in Badakhshan, Bamyan and Nuristan to secure habitat and support for the ongoing conservation of these majestic mountain monarchs. There is a continual need for environmental education, in combination with detailed impact assessments of factors detrimental to their survival, such as hunting pressure and the scale and extent of habitat loss. One of the most urgent mitigation measures is the development and implementation of suitable protection policies that central and local governance structures can be trained to enforce. WCS has worked alongside the Afghanistan Wildlife Executive Committee (AWEC) since 2008 to ensure all four of these species – the Marco Polo sheep, urial, markhor and Siberian ibex – are placed and kept on the national Protected Species List, prohibiting all hunting and trading of their parts until such time as the populations are no longer considered at risk.