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Afghanistan’s rich natural heritage shines in an insider’s account of the foundings of its first national parks

The Snow Leopard Project: And Other Adventures in Warzone Conservation

Alex Dehgan
PublicAffairs
2019
288 pp.
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In war zones—where daily life holds existential threats, where people are strafed and hardened by conflict, where securing food and safety is an ever-present priority—why should people care about the elusive beauty of the snow leopard, the hoary majesty of the markhor goat, or the fantastically adorned Marco Polo sheep? Alex Dehgan tackles this question in his insightful and eye-opening book, The Snow Leopard Project, a narrative of his experiences establishing an outpost of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)—one of the leading conservation organizations in the United States—in Afghanistan in 2006.

From the outset, Dehgan and his colleagues grappled with unpredictable situations and jaw-dropping logistic and security challenges: from dodging IEDs (improvised explosive devices) to adjusting camera trap schedules to accommodate U.S. bombing campaigns. What appears to have been the biggest challenge, however, was navigating the priorities and processes of the U.S. Agency for International Development, the project’s major financial backer.

Central Asia, for most readers, is likely to be a black zone on the map—a geographical lacuna that may, if anything, conjure the Silk Road, Alexander the Great, brutal conflicts, or post-Communist corruption. Yet, as Dehgan highlights, this area is rich, diverse, and valuable in both cultural and biological terms. Peoples have moved and settled across the region over millennia, making a complex cultural mosaic. And the mountain ranges around the north of Afghanistan and its bordering countries represent the convergence zone of the Afrotropic, Indomalayan, and Paleoarctic faunas, making for a distinct and rich wildlife assemblage.

Dehgan’s writing is filled with love and respect and an interest in Afghanistan and the broader region—people as well as wildlife. The book is filled with characters, Afghans and expats, drawn with affection and detail. An opening anecdote about birdwatching with a member of the Taliban illustrates neatly his ability to build personal bonds in support of conservation.

There are themes here that resonate deeply with conservation efforts worldwide. It is important, for example, to gain the support of local people and to build effective governance structures for protected areas that give these people a voice and ensure that they gain tangible benefits from conservation efforts. The political challenges of mobilizing cooperation between states in conflict, in which wild species and landscapes rank at the bottom of a long list of priorities, will likewise be familiar to conservationists in other regions.

Despite this region’s challenges—the land mines, the devastated infrastructure, the shattered society, the yawning chasms of governance—this is a book with a message of hope. Dehgan found enthusiasm and support for wildlife conservation among the people of Afghanistan at all levels, from political leaders to ordinary rural people. He attributes this to a desire to reestablish the country’s identity after decades of war and displacement. The species that will benefit from these efforts—the urial, the golden jackal, the musk deer, and the eponymous snow leopard, for example—are an integral part of the country’s natural heritage, deeply interwoven with their culture (the vast majority of Afghans are directly dependent on natural resources). Wildlife recovery reflects the potential for rebounding national identity and pride.

This is indeed a story of success (albeit partial and hard-won). WCS’s work helped Afghanistan establish its first two national parks: Band-e-Amir, in the central highlands ,in 2009, and Wakhan, in the high and remote northeast, in 2014. Although ecotourism in Afghanistan may seem a hard sell, domestic and international interest is growing; the parks have been developing infrastructure and training to accommodate tourists, and local benefits have started to flow. Dehgan notes that in 2017, 189,000 people (mainly Afghan nationals) visited Band-e-Amir.

The Snow Leopard Project is not without flaws. It is somewhat weak in narrative tension; Dehgan’s account is essentially a collection of anecdotes loosely held together with personal reflections. We never learn enough about the writer himself to be caught up in a compelling overarching story, and the book abruptly ends with his resignation from the WCS, with little insight into the precipitating dynamics or his feelings on the matter.

Overall, however, the book abundantly succeeds in highlighting the stark and surprising challenges faced by those engaged in conservation in war zones and in shining a light on the rich cultural and biological diversity of Afghanistan. The country (aided by WCS and others) has taken the first steps toward recovering its wildlife and related cultures and livelihoods; with additional support from the global community—including tourists and donors—great things are possible.

About the author

(1) Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University, Canberra, ACT 2601, Australia. (2) Regional chair (Central Asia), International Union for Conservation of Nature Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group, Gland, Switzerland.