Conservationists Help Protect Animals in War Zone

In Afghanistan, a quarter-century of war has left deep environmental scars, from toxic rivers to disappearing forests. But governments and conservation groups are helping protect such rare animals as snow leopards and Marco Polo sheep.

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Afghanistan's quarter century of war has left some deep environmental scars -from toxic rivers to disappearing forests. Governments and conservation groups say all is not lost, however. They have managed to protect some famous animals like snow leopards. Recently, the biologist in charge of this conservation went to New York City to talk about what's been accomplished.

And NPR's John Nielsen caught up with him on New York's streets.

JOHN NIELSEN: Five years ago, an American biologist named Peter Zahler got a call from the United Nations and wanted him to fly to Afghanistan and conduct a post-war survey of the environmental conditions in that country. To his own surprise, Zahler accepted the job and flew to Kabul.

Mr. PETER ZAHLER (Biologist; Assistant Director, Wildlife Conservation Society): It was an amazing experience actually. When you came outside of the airport, there was - what looked like an endless sea of destroyed plain. This is true for about the first by a mile and a half as you drive into town.

NIELSEN: Zalar says the lands beyond the road looked like the surface of the moon to him. Kabul itself seemed quiet with one vivid exception.

Mr. ZAHLER: It's called Chicken Street, and it's an area where the expats go and they have opportunities to buy carpet and furs and jewelry, almost anything that you can imagine.

NIELSEN: Including the skins of rare and endangered animals like snow leopards and giant Marco Polo sheep. But in a way, according to Zahler, that wasn't at all bad.

Mr. ZAHLER: I was actually excited because it shows that there actually were animal left in the country because when I first landed, I had no idea. And to see these - all these furs available to sale maybe think there's something left, there's something still out there to save.

NIELSEN: Zahler, who now works for the Wildlife Conservation Society, helped turn that sense of optimism into an ambitious conservation plan for Afghanistan. It's been adopted by the country's government and endorsed by the United Nations. The United States and other donors have kicked in more than $100 million. The goal of the plan was to find and save the places where rare animals like snow leopards are still hanging on.

But Zahler, who recently returned from Afghanistan, says it wasn't easy for wildlife surveys to get done in a country full of landmines, warring militia groups and drug lords. He says his biologists needed bodyguards, for one thing, but added that no one has been hurt. On the other hand, he says it wasn't hard at all to kill off the local market for poached animal skins. That's because it turns out that United Nations' soldiers who didn't know any better were the main customers.

Mr. ZAHLER: Nobody had ever told them that you're not allowed to buy a snow leopard pelt, so we held a number of courses within some of the military establishments around Kabul and have essentially shut down the illegal trade in a number of these furs, which we're very, very proud of something that happened very quickly and were still shocked by how quickly and successfully it was.

NIELSEN: Zahler says the government of Afghanistan is now working on a plan to set up the country's first national park. An even more ambitious plan would create a conservation area along the border shared with China and Pakistan. At Zahler's briefing, some in the audience wondered why saving wildlife should be such a high priority in the war zone full of needy people. That question was answered by Steven Sanderson, CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Mr. STEVEN SANDERSON (CEO, Wildlife Conservation Society): We have to work and want to work where the wildlife are, and they can't wait for us to produce a stable political regime or a calm political environment or a strong local community institutions that understand the conservation agenda.

NIELSEN: Sadly, according to Sanderson, conservation work done inside war zones may become even more common in the future.

John Nielsen, NPR News, Washington.

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