John Mock & Kimberley O'Neil

"Afghanistan's Wakhan Corridor" from the IUCN-WCPA Mountain Protected Areas UPDATE, No. 72, December 2011

by John Mock, Ph.D.

Mountain Protected Areas network members may have noted that the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has found a healthy snow leopard population in the Wakhan Corridor of northeastern Afghanistan, catching glimpses of the animals at 16 camera traps. This bit of good news was initially reported on the WCS website, with the full study published in the International Journal of Environmental Studies (68:3), "Saving threatened species in Afghanistan: snow leopards in the Wakhan Corridor".

WCS scientists have also surveyed Wakhan's Marco Polo sheep (argali) population and published several studies; "Argali Abundance in the Afghan Pamir Using Capture-Recapture Modeling from Fecal DNA" in Journal of Wildlife Management (74:4, 2010), and "High Connectivity Among Argali Sheep from Afghanistan and Adjacent Ccountries: Inferences from Neutral and Candidate Gene Microsatellites" in Conservation Genetics (12, 2011).

These studies support WCS's long term goal of creating a four-country Transboundary Protected Area (PA) in the Pamirs between Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and China to conserve species that range across these national borders. Mountain PAs Network member George Schaller is one of the key scientists studying both species, and in promoting the protection of the Wakhan and the Pamir Trans Boundary PA.

All of Wakhan is significant for biodiversity conservation and WCS has identified three potential protected areas (see map) that may be developed - the Big Pamir, the Tegermansu Valley and the Wakhjir Valley in Wakhan's far eastern corner. WCS has initiated plans to designate the Big Pamir Wildlife Reserve as the region's first protected area. The envisioned PAs are all locations of significant argali populations.

Wakhan, home to the ancient indigenous Wakhi people as well as the last remaining Kyrgyz nomads, has numerous archaeological sites that have not yet received the attention they deserve. All together, Wakhan's outstanding biological and cultural heritage have prompted some initial discussion of the entire area receiving a broader PA designation. However, moves towards conservation are counterbalanced by ongoing discussion of building a road through Wakhan to link the four countries. MtPA network members may recall the sad decimation of the argali population in Pakistan's Khunjerab National Park as the Karakoram Highway opened access to the once remote Khunjerab Pass on the Pakistan-China border, and we hope the remarkable biocultural heritage of Wakhan will not meet a similar fate.

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