In an effort to safeguard its natural heritage, Afghanistan’s National Environment Protection Agency (NEPA) has released the country’s first-ever list of protected species now banned from hunting or harvest.

The wide-ranging list of endangered and threatened species includes such well-known wildlife as snow leopards, wolves, and brown bears, as well as the paghman salamander, goitered gazelle, and Himalayan elm tree. In total, it protects 20 mammals, seven birds, four plants, and a single amphibian and insect. The newly earned legal protection will help Afghanistan’s wildlife and plants recover from the impacts of more than 30 years of conflict.

NEPA created the Afghanistan Wildlife Executive Committee (AWEC) to facilitate the listing process. It joined with WCS—which received funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)—and the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock, and Kabul University to complete the task. AWEC and WCS began evaluating species to make status determinations in July 2008, based on the most recent and accurate information available for Afghanistan and the region. They also used scientific criteria established by the global authority on species listing, the IUCN Red List. By the end of 2009, the list may be expanded to as many as 70 species.

“The Wildlife Conservation Society commends Afghanistan’s National Environment Protection Agency for showing a continued commitment to conserving its natural heritage—even during these challenging times,” said Dr. Steven E. Sanderson, President and CEO of WCS. “WCS believes that conservation can often serve as diplomacy, and we are optimistic that this commitment to conservation will benefit all of Afghanistan’s people.”

Afghanistan’s snow leopards are under threat from excessive hunting, loss of key habitat, and illegal trade. Snow leopard pelts for sale in tourist shops can go for as much as $1,500 each. Though international trade in these big cats is illegal because of their globally endangered status, only one week ago, it would have been legal for any person to kill and trade a snow leopard inside Afghanistan. The new law reverses that.

The protected species list also comes at a critical time for Afghanistan’s wild species; the presidential decree banning hunting in the country expired in March 2009. Last month, the country announced the creation of its first national park: Band-e-Amir, a spectacular series of six deep blue lakes separated by natural dams made of travertine, a mineral deposit.

WCS is currently the only organization conducting ongoing scientific conservation studies in Afghanistan in the past 30 years, and is continuing to work with the Afghan government to establish a network of parks and protected areas.