How Do You Save an Endangered Species in a Warzone?
The Race to Save the Asiatic Cheetah in Afghanistan
Recent years have seen a global effort to study and conserve the Asiatic cheetah in Iran, but there has been little evidence of the Asiatic cheetah’s presence in Afghanistan; the last visual sightings in the country dated from the 1950s. There was also a single sighting by Iranian conservationists around the Sistan wetlands on the border with Afghanistan in the 1970s. In 1971, a conservationist photographed a cheetah skin in the Herat fur market. The only Asiatic cheetah pelt known to be from Afghanistan within global natural history museum collections was purchased in Farah Province in 1948 by the Third Danish Expedition to Central Asia. So why would we even try to find the cheetah in Afghanistan?
Chance would favor the search for the cheetah. WCS [the Wildlife Conservation Society] discovered new evidence suggesting that the Asiatic cheetah was in Afghanistan, but the evidence wasn’t in Afghanistan’s northwest; it was right in Kabul. One day, Shafiq and Zabih went to lunch at a restaurant near our office called Baba Amir. Nailed to the dusty whitewashed walls were the pelts of endangered cats, including a tiger, snow leopards, Persian leopards, caracals—and one cheetah pelt. Once again in Afghanistan, serendipity would lead us to a breakthrough.
Shafiq and Zabih spoke to the owner about the work of WCS and asked whether they could borrow the cheetah pelt to show it to me. Despite the restaurant owner’s clear predilection for decoration with pelts of large endangered cats, he quickly became enthusiastic about WCS’s conservation work in Afghanistan. He later lent Shafiq and Zabih the entire pelt collection, literally pulling out the nails from walls, for use in wildlife-trade training sessions.
Asiatic cheetahs can be distinguished from African and Saharan forms by a short mane on their shoulders, left from the mantle coloration they had as cubs. It appeared that this one had such a mantle. After I examined the pelt, I invited the owner over for lunch to thank him for sharing it with us, but more importantly to learn about how a cheetah hide came to decorate his business. The owner claimed that the cheetah pelt was hunted within the last two years in Afghanistan. He insisted it did not come from Iran or alternatively trafficked from Africa. The pelt didn’t seem especially old, and if his story were true, it would put the cheetah in present-day Afghanistan or at least suggested a population that crossed the border from Iran.
A few weeks later, we gained a second piece of evidence for a cheetah presence in Afghanistan. We had just started surveying the fur markets, trying to estimate the demand for endangered wildlife products, when we found a jacket that appeared to be made out of cheetah fur. The jacket came from a fur factory catering almost exclusively to the foreign presence spread at bases around Kabul. Unbeknownst to us, at almost the same time, an Afghan biologist completing a doctorate on the wildlife trade in leopards at the University of Cologne discovered another cheetah skin for sale in a market in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif and published the finding in Cat News. Taken together, these two pelts and a jacket represented more certain evidence of the cheetah’s persistence in Afghanistan than had been accumulated in the previous seventy years.
There was a catch, however. These skins could also have been poached from Iran (which was worrying in any case, given the low population numbers), or from Africa (which would suggest a wide-ranging trafficking network). We conferred about our findings around the cheetah with WCS headquarters at the Bronx Zoo and with WCS field biologist George Schaller, a tall, lanky, focused, and indefatigable German-born biologist who did pioneering work on everything from mountain gorillas (preceding Dian Fossey) to Serengeti lions, snow leopards in the Himalayas, jaguars in Brazil, and giant pandas in China. Schaller had already traveled to Afghanistan to survey Marco Polo sheep during Peter Zahler’s initial rapid assessment, and WCS was already quietly working with the authorities across the border in Iran regarding the Asiatic cheetah. If there proved to be a cheetah population in Afghanistan, our work represented a chance to build on WCS’s established efforts in Iran and manage a transboundary population of cheetahs in one of the most complex foreign-policy minefields in the world—along a border region that included plenty of actual minefields and even worse threats.
My team hadn’t worked in western Afghanistan before and weren’t sure what to expect. I decided to travel to the region in advance of the longer expedition with Schaller to scout out some locations, understand the security situation, and secure permissions and support for the expedition. Specifically, I wanted to meet with the governor of Herat Province, local shurras, district representatives, the head of USAID’s local efforts, officers of the Ministry of Agriculture and National Environmental Protection Agency, and anyone else who could provide advance intelligence for the longer cheetah expedition. I also wanted to do some surveys for the cheetah myself.
We also met local military and police chiefs to plan a security detail for the expedition and better understand the risks in the region. While Herat was the safest region in Afghanistan (outside remote Wakhan), regions to the south and east were quickly turning crimson on the security maps. We were receiving reports of more and more incidents, from IEDs to outright attacks on NGO facilities. Our survey work took us north along the Turkmenistan border, west near the Iranian border, and to the southern edge of Herat Province. When I came on as the director of the Afghanistan program, Peter Zahler sent me regular security reports. As those reports got less and less encouraging, Zahler scribbled on one missive, “I think if you just black out all provinces from Nuristan to Herat that border another country, you’re good to go.” Luckily for me, all the places with interesting wildlife happened to be in those zones he just told me to black out.
On our advance trip, after securing permissions and sorting out logistics, we would do some initial scouting of potential survey sites. Traveling to Herat by road wouldn’t be safe even for Afghan staff, so we decided to fly. Qais had arranged for Abdul Razaq, one of our security guards, to travel ahead by plane and arrange a car and driver and then meet us at the airport. This trip would be my first with Inayatollah, one of my favorite members of the WCS team. He was a logistics expert, a kind man with Hazara features and a stellar command of English. Soon enough, we were on a plane to Herat, and we met up with Razaq and our middle-aged Herati driver at the airport.
Nancy Dupree wrote that the city of Herat “reflects the cultures of Iran, Central Asia, and Afghanistan for it is the pivot around which these areas spin.” If Afghanistan was the crossroads of the world in ancient times, Herat was the crossroads of the crossroads, a brilliant hub, one where kings and queens from ancient Iraq to China would pay homage. Long ago, Herat was a capital of the Timurid Empire, and Alexander the Great spent time there as well. The city has endured attacks by the Mongols, Russians, and the Taliban, but many of its ancient minarets and battlements stand, fiercely defiant in their frayed beauty.
Herat, greened by the waters of the Hari Rud River, is an oasis not only among the desiccated and rocky hills that surround it but also a figurative oasis within Afghanistan. It is among the most beautiful and civil of the Afghan cities. Its wide avenues are tree-lined and clean, and roads are well paved and signed. Herat was the only city in Afghanistan where power worked around the clock. Residents drank clean water, the sewers were covered, the roads were well maintained, and a robust economy thrived on not just agriculture but industry. Factories that fueled the regional economy built by Iranian investors after the war dotted the outskirts of the airport.
On our first day in Herat, Inayatollah and I visited the dusty provincial offices and made the case to various officials about the importance of our search for the Afghan cheetah. The officials listened to us, bemused by their first pitch from American conservationists. Despite, or because of, the novelty of our request, they approved our search effort and pledged their support. We also arranged for a trip to travel to the regions south of Herat, accompanied by members of the Afghan police and Afghan National Army, along with the police chief, as these were some of the most dangerous areas in the region.
At a subsequent meeting at the local NEPA office, we received another approval and more indications of a possible cheetah presence. Another cheetah skin had reportedly been sold in the bazaar in Herat within the last week. We quickly secured needed permissions from the relevant ministries (Interior, NEPA, Agriculture, Rural Development) without any difficulty but rather with actual enthusiasm.
We also paid a visit to the ISAF Provincial Reconstruction Team, or PRT for short. The concept of a PRT aimed to scale foreign assistance effectively on the local level, with different teams spread across the country. PRTs were usually led by military officers but also employed diplomats, development officers, and reconstruction subject matter experts, all working together to support post-war humanitarian efforts. In my experience, PRTs in Afghanistan (and Iraq) in more unstable areas became de facto prisons for development workers, who could only travel to take meetings and review projects under military escort or with similarly heavy security. The PRT in Herat, like the one in Bamiyan, was the exception, and as such, it was a highly desired appointment. The relative stability of Herat and Bamiyan and low security threats to Westerners permitted PRT staff to leave their compounds and actually engage the populace without a full military convoy. This was a significant advantage over posts in higher-risk PRTs in the east or south. Moreover, the Herat PRT was run by the Italians, who were rumored to wear tailored battle-dress fatigues and serve terrific food.
The PRT and government officials both provided positive reports regarding security. Mines were in low frequency in Herat Province, but their numbers increased exponentially as one got closer to the Iranian border. To the south and east, the threat level from the insurgency was rising. The biggest threat, however, surprisingly enough wasn’t the Taliban but came from another source: drug runners. The opium smugglers who illegally crossed the desert border into Iran outgunned even the Iranian army. They had nothing to lose and would perceive any encounter with foreigners as a risk. The smugglers were crossing the border in remote regions that were the very areas where we thought we would find Afghan cheetahs.
That evening, Inayatollah and I did some sightseeing around the city. We climbed up to the old citadel, which was being restored. From afar, the citadel resembles a giant sandcastle, with heavy, rounded fairy-tale turrets interrupting the thick walls. According to legend, the fortress dated all the way back to 330 BC, when Alexander the Great and his army conquered ancient Herat. However old it was, the sloping mud-brick walls of the citadel had seen countless empires come and go. It had been attacked by Mongol warriors twice, as well as British and Persian armies. It had been captured and conquered but seemingly always rebounded, much like Afghanistan itself.
We walked up to a guard post, hoping we might get access to the citadel’s interior despite the ongoing restoration work. The guard kindly let us in when we told him we’d traveled from Kabul. Architects were rebuilding the walls and battlements with sand-colored bricks, filling in countless bullet and RPG holes from decades of conflict. Nearly every pre-conflict building in Afghanistan bore similar pockmarks, but as time passed, these wounds healed. Inayatollah and I stood upon the ramparts and saw the city’s stupendous mosques and distant minarets laid out before us as the setting sun bathed everything in the last golden light of the day.
We then walked to the Musalla Complex, a 15th-century religious center and school marked by five enormous minarets. The legendary British travel writer Robert Byron saw Musalla in the 1930s and described it as “the most beautiful example in color in architecture ever devised by man to the glory of his God and himself ” in The Road to Oxiana. But by the time I arrived, nearly all the tiles that once covered the buildings and the minarets were gone. All that remained were brilliant diamond-shaped flakes of blue that hinted of a glory that had once been. Four noticeably askew minarets stood together in a square north of the mausoleum of a long-dead queen, marking the corners of a now long-gone madrassa. A fifth minaret leaned dangerously, supported by wires, scarred by an enormous hole about three-quarters of the way up—a memento of a hit from a tank shell. The stump of a nearly completely destroyed sixth minaret stood nearby. These minarets had long attracted the attention of Afghanistan’s invaders. British soldiers destroyed the original musalla in 1885 to clear a sight line for their guns to fend off a Russian attack that never materialized. The Soviets used the minarets for target practice during their occupation. Despite the degradation, here they stood, even while the mighty Soviet and British empires had disappeared into dust on the Afghan plains.
The next day, we went into the old bazaar, an ancient marketplace of the Silk Road. The day prior, Herat’s NEPA staff had reported the sale of a cheetah pelt in the bazaar. We wanted to search fur shops to see if there were any others still available or if we could uncover other information about the status of the cheetah. Herat’s ancient bazaar had been one of the last covered markets in Afghanistan, but like so many other landmarks, it was damaged during years of war. The arched roof was now gone, but the bazaar was still an intriguing warren of side streets, hidden shops, and secret squares. Although our search for cheetah pelts proved fruitless, we found other skins for sale, including wolf, jackal, and fox. The shops around Herat’s magnificent Friday Mosque and its gardens also proved fruitful. Inayatollah and I found a hunting and gun shop proudly displaying two mounted and stuffed goitered gazelles—a critical prey species for the cheetah. The store owners noted during the Taliban’s rule, they heard reports of cheetahs near a large wetland near the town of Kuhestan, close by the Iranian border, and much farther to the north than the Sistan wetlands, the site of a previous sighting.
As we interviewed more government officials over the next few days, we heard the same stories over and over. The deputy head of agriculture for Herat told us that thirty years ago, cheetahs and leopards had been present, but they were missing today. He noted that people reported the onager was still present but significantly in decline. The region reportedly still had wild cats, caracals, wolf, fox, jackals, wild boar, urials, and gazelles, particularly at higher elevations.
We repeatedly heard about possible habitats for our elusive cheetah. Terrains as varied as mountains and salty wetlands had been the sites of rumored cheetah encounters. Officials also repeatedly encouraged us to focus our survey efforts on the flanks of mountains, particularly near the border. Perhaps the mines and drug runners in the border regions ironically had helped preserve the cheetah, but they would be threats to our teams.
Excerpted from The Snow Leopard Project: And Other Adventures in Warzone Conservation by Alex Dehgan. Copyright © 2019. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.