The Eastern Forests Complex of Afghanistan, covering the provinces of Nuristan, Kunar, Laghman, Nangarhar, Paktya, Khost and Paktika, contains the country’s last remaining area of mixed oak and coniferous forests. At the interface of the Palearctic and Indomalayan biogeographic realms, the forests harbor a rich diversity of flora and fauna, including some of the most globally threatened and iconic species in Asia. With these credentials, the most intact areas of forest are possible candidates for protected area status in the future and have been the focus of WCS work since 2006.
Being on the western edge of the Indian sub-continental monsoon belt, the area receives more rainfall than other regions of the country. These precipitation levels, an elevation range of between about 1,300 m and 3,500 m, and exposure to various climatic elements allows for a diverse collection of habitat types including grassy meadows and deciduous forests with walnut species, evergreen oak forests, dense coniferous forests dominated by pine (Pinus species), cedar (Cedrus deodara), spruce (Picea species), juniper (Juniperus species) and fir (Abies species), and alpine areas with shrubland, sedge meadows, alpine heaths and steppe.
Surveys in the 1970s and more recent WCS work shows evidence of a rich diversity of wildlife in these forests. Species reported to exist there, either currently or historically, include snow leopard (Uncia uncia), Asiatic black bear (Ursus thibetanus), markhor (Capra falconeri), urial sheep (Ovis orientalis), grey wolf (Canis lupus), common leopard (Panthera pardus), Asiatic black bear (Ursus thibetanus), Himalayan brown bear (Ursus arctos isabellinus), leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis), wild cat (Felis silvestris), Pallas’ cat (Otocolobus manul), Himalayan lynx (Lynx lynx), jungle cat (Felis chaus), Siberian ibex (Capra sibirica), musk deer (Moschus cupreus), golden jackal (Canis aureus), red fox (Vulpes vulpes), rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta), crested porcupine (Hystrix indica), common palm civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditis), yellow-throated marten (Martes flavigula), the small Kashmir flying squirrel (Euglaucomys fimbriatus), and numerous bird species such as the chukar partridge (Alectoris chukar) and scaly-bellied woodpecker (Picus squamatus). Many are thought to descend from the rugged mountains down to these forested areas for shelter, food and warmth during the bitterly cold winter months.
These forest-dwelling species all owe their existence to the dense forest stands
and an intact forest ecosystem. However, surveys over the past decade have shown the forests to be degraded and many species are now threatened. Threats include logging pressure to fuel the timber trade (particularly the deodar cedar, considered to be the most valuable commercial species within the eastern forests) and extensive damage from the cutting of oak forests for fuel wood and animal fodder. Disturbance due to collection of non-timber products such as mushrooms and fruits, and grazing competition between domestic livestock and wild ungulates are also causing serious concerns. There is a potential for disease transmission between wild populations and domestic stock, and an overall lack of local knowledge regarding the benefits of sustainable forest management.
The other major threat to wild fauna is the heavy hunting levels, either for the wildlife trade, as an additional food source, or for social prestige. Hunting has a long-standing history in Nuristan and other eastern provinces, and there is very little enforcement of current anti-hunting legislation. According to recent community interviews by WCS, markhor is the most commonly hunted species in Nuristan, most often for the animal’s trophy value, with its meat as a secondary benefit. Carnivores such as bears, leopards, wolves and cat species are hunted either for their fur, which is often sold to traders for profit, or as retaliation for losses to livestock.
All of these factors combine to put the eastern forest species under significant risk. Effective conservation strategies can only be developed once baseline data on the current status of the forests and wildlife have been collected. After a gap of 30 years, 2006 marked the start of WCS-led surveys to gather this much-needed data. The focal point was south-central Nuristan and species occurrence data were collected by a variety of methods:-
- Large mammal surveys through direct sightings and other signs including tracks, scats and carcasses
- Camera trap surveys
- Scat collection for species identification via DNA analysis
- Small rodent trapping and collection
- Community interviews and community wildlife mapping.
WCS also implemented an environmental education program throughout the schools in Nuristan and worked with local communities and with central and provincial government to ensure the development and enforcement of wildlife and forestry protection policies. For example, the recent national wildlife listing process by the Afghanistan Wildlife Executive Committee (AWEC) placed almost all of the above-mentioned species on the county’s official Protected List, banning all hunting and trading in their parts.