When U.S. forces pushed into Afghanistan in September 2001, I wrote that the introduction of big-game hunting into the mountains of northeast Afghanistan could be a boon to the local economy post-war. It would also help conserve animals — like the highly prized Marco Polo sheep.
The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) just released its “Post-Conflict Environment Assessment Report,” indicating that the wildlife situation has taken a bad turn in Afghanistan. The report says that most of the Marco Polo sheep and Ibex are being poached for food, while wolves, snow leopards, and bears are being killed to curb their predation on sheep and goats. The fur of these animals is also being sold to aid-workers and foreign soldiers as souvenirs.
With two million refugees returning in 2002, and another 1.5 million expected in 2003, things are likely to get worse before they get better for Afghanistan’s natural resources.
But an illustration of how things can get better can be found in neighboring Pakistan. The government there allows limited hunting of the rare markhor, a species of mountain goat that has long, exotic curving horns. At the most recent meeting of CITES, the Convention on the International Trade In Endangered Species, the Pakistani government requested that the annual quota of markhor be increased from 6 to 12. The hunting program has been that successful.
In the1990s the Pakistani government embarked on a program to enlist local communities to combat poaching. It was similar to the Campfire program in Africa. However, the communities derived no benefit from protecting the resource, so things got worse.
In 1998, the government created “village conservation conservancies,” and locally elected representatives were empowered by the government as wildlife officers. The communities took over the management of markhor in their locale. Today, 80 percent of the revenues from the hunting licenses for the 6 markhor go directly to a village conservation fund that is operated by the community itself. The fund goes to education and other community welfare, the equipment of game wardens, and habitat improvement. As people have embraced this strategy, poaching has dropped considerably. The government also feels the annual quota can be doubled without harming the markhor population.
War and wildlife don’t mix. Mountain gorillas have been hit hard by fighting in Uganda. The wisent, the European counterpart of the American buffalo, was pushed to the brink of extinction by various wars as armies shot the animals for food.
The American buffalo suffered an equally dramatic near-extinction. When the Mayflower landed there were 60 million buffalo in North America. The herd stretched coast to coast. By 1900, there were less than 1,500 alive and less than 100 in the wild.
American buffalo were hunted to near extinction largely by market hunters, and their slaughter was encouraged as part of a planned military strategy to force American Indians onto reservations by taking away their natural food supply. President Grant vetoed legislation that would have stopped the slaughter of buffalo and the army gave away free guns and ammunition to market hunters. On some occasions, enormous grass fires were set by the army to burn off prairie grasses and starve those animals that were not trapped in the blaze.
The restoration of the buffalo was initiated by a group of conservation-minded hunters — especially William Hornaday and Theodore Roosevelt, who formed the American Bison Society in l905. They persuaded Congress to establish the National Bison Range in Montana, which has served as a principal source of breeding stock for many parks, refuges, zoos, and private ranches. Today, there are nearly 300,000 buffalo in the U.S. and the herd is growing 20 percent a year, thanks in good part to the National Bison Association.
This leads to Iraq. Centuries of habitation and war have not exactly made Iraq a sportsman’s paradise. The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers slice through a weary land of mountains in the north and deserts in the west. As we’ve seen in the war, the land is periodically swept up in sand storms and positive-ion-rich hot, dry winds that are tough on man or beast.
According to IraqiOasis.com, in the Zagros Mountains to the north, over cutting and overgrazing have reduced many of Iraq’s oak forests to scrubland. Date palms thrive in many parts of the country, and fast-growing poplars and willows occur in limited areas, but timber is sparse in Iraq. Surviving mammals include bats, rats, jackals, hyenas, and wildcats, with wild pigs and gazelles living in remote areas, while lizards and snakes inhabit the country’s deserts. Among Iraq’s domesticated animals are camels, oxen, water buffalo, horses, sheep, and goats. And then there’s the additional problem of airborne wildlife as there is malaria in the Tigris-Euphrates valley.
Post-war, if planners pay attention to the lessons of the Marco Polo sheep, the markhor, and the American buffalo, maybe the fish and wildlife of the Fertile Crescent can be restored as a source of revenue and enjoyment for rural indigenous peoples — as well as sportsmen worldwide.
— James Swan is a contributing editor of ESPNOutdoors.com.