Natural habitat in Afghanistan has endured decades of struggle, and the war on terror has only escalated the destruction. The lands most afflicted by warfare are home to critters that most Westerners only have a chance to observe behind cages in our city zoos: gazelles, cheetahs, hyenas, Turanian tigers and snow leopards among others.
Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA), has listed a total of 33 species on its Endangered list. In 2003, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) released its evaluation of Afghanistan’s environmental issues. Titled ‘Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment’, the UNEP report claimed that war and long-standing drought “have caused serious and widespread land and resource degradation, including lowered water tables, desiccation of wetlands, deforestation and widespread loss of vegetative cover, erosion, and loss of wildlife populations”.
As bombs fall, civilians are not the only ones put at risk, and the lasting environmental impacts of the war may not be known for years, perhaps decades, to come. For example, birds are killed and sent off their migratory course. Literally tens of thousands of birds leave Siberia and Central Asia to find their winter homes to the south. Many of these winged creatures have traditionally flown through Afghanistan to the southeastern wetlands of Kazakhstan, but their numbers have drastically declined in recent years.
Endangered Siberian cranes and two protected species of pelicans are the most at risk, say Pakistani ornithologists who study the area. The war’s true impact on these species is not yet known, but President Obama’s continued bombing campaign is not a hopeful sign.
Back in 2001, Dr Oumed Haneed, who monitors bird migration in Pakistan, told the BBC that the country had typically witnessed thousands of ducks and other wildfowl migrating through Afghanistan to Pakistan. Yet, once the US began its air raids, few birds were to be found. “One impact may be directly the killing of birds through bombing, poisoning of the wetlands or the sites which these birds are using,” said Haneed, who works for Pakistan’s National Council for Conservation of Wildlife. “Another impact may be these birds are derouted, because their migration is very precise. They migrate in a corridor and if they are disturbed through bombing, they might change their route.”
Intense fighting throughout Afghanistan, especially in the White Mountains, where the US hunted Osama bin Laden in the Battle of Tora Bora, has been hit the hardest. While the difficult-to-access ranges may serve as safe havens for alleged al-Qaeda operatives, the Tora Bora caves and steep topography also provide refuge for bears, Marco Polo sheep, gazelles and mountain leopards.
Every missile that is fired into these vulnerable mountains could potentially kill any of these treasured animals, all of which are on the verge of becoming extinct. “The same terrain that allows fighters to strike and disappear back into the hills has also, historically, enabled wildlife to survive,” Peter Zahler of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) told New Scientist at the onset of the Afghanistan invasion.
Afghanistan has faced nearly 30 years of unfettered resource exploitation, even prior to the most recent war. This has led to a collapse of government systems and has displaced millions of people, all of which has led to the degradation of the country’s habitat on a vast scale.
Forests have been ravaged to provide short-term energy and building supplies for refugees. Many of the country’s arid grasslands have also been overgrazed and wildlife killed. Afghanistan’s massive refugee crisis, lack of governmental stability, and extreme poverty, coupled with polluted water supplies, drought, land mines and excessive bombings, all contribute to the country’s intense environmental predicament.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘Afghanistan: bombing the land of the snow leopard’.