The Asiatic jackal, shown here in Tanzania, Africa, is under consideration for Afghanistan's endangered-species list thanks to student research. Photo by Stig Nygaard via Flickr.
The ongoing conflict in Afghanistan has made it nearly impossible for researchers to conduct on-the-ground fieldwork to find out how species such as the Kashmir cave bat, Asiatic jackal, and Afghan tortoise have fared during the last 30 years of war. So conservation organizations and the Afghan government have turned to an unlikely source of assistance: A class of American college students, some 7,000 miles away.Twice in the last year, students in geography professor Dr. David Salisbury's sustainable development class at the University of Richmond have fired up their laptops at 5 a.m. to present their research on plant and animal species via Skype video-conference call to members of the Afghanistan Wildlife Executive Committee, a group of Kabul University professors and environmental-agency officials charged with creating the country's first list of protected species. So far, six of those presented -- including the Egyptian vulture, goitered gazelle, and Himalayan elm -- have made it on to that list and 28 more are under consideration.
"The students really responded to the challenge. It was a lot of hard work -- many said it was the hardest class they'd taken -- but it was very rewarding for them to do something that was tangible and real," Salisbury said.
Afghanistan's First Species Assessment
"The committee representatives really enjoyed seeing students in the United States and were very appreciative that they would take the time to do something like this," added McKenzie Johnson, a program manager at the Wildlife Conservation Society who headed up Afghanistan's first species assessment, starting in the fall of 2008.
The idea for the project, which is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), initially came from Dr. Peter Smallwood, a biology professor at the Virginia university who spent 18 months working as country director for WCS-Afghanistan and helped establish the country's first national park.
While he was in Afghanistan, Smallwood observed the challenges facing the country's researchers and thought that students from his school back home might be able to fill some of the gaps in manpower and knowledge. Salisbury, who was preparing to teach at class on society, environment, and nature, jumped at the change to get involved. Each of the approximately 20 students in his class was assigned a species to research -- from deer and gazelles to vultures and ducks -- and then present their findings. Six of those species appeared on Afghanistan's first protected-species list, released June 3, 2009. A second semester's worth of research, presented Dec. 3, is still being evaluated.
A student presents his research results to the Afghanistan Wildlife Executive Committee via video call. Photo by David Salisbury, University of Richmond.
Little to no conservation-oriented data has been collected in Afghanistan since the 1960s and 1970s, when the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) conducted a large project to prioritize potential protected areas. The 1979 invasion by the Soviet Union put an end to all that. As a result, the most recent data the students could draw on was likely older than they are.
To start out, "we looked for species that had the most literature published and the most chance of interacting with still alive and active researchers," Smallwood said. Then the students had to "pull together all the existing data on the species, talk to experts who've worked with the same or similar species in neighboring countries, then analyze it -- make their best guess at what might be going on with the species," added Johnson, who ran workshops remotely to teach the students skills for evaluating the status of a species -- whether it is endangered, threatened, or thriving -- in the face of ambiguous and missing data.
Working in the Wakhan Corridor and Bamiyan
The Wildlife Conservation Society is one of the few groups in Afghanistan working specifically on biodiversity conservation, focusing on the Wakhan Corridor and the central region of Bamiyan, including Band-e Amir National Park. Despite security and financial constraints, the group has succeeded in getting a number of local communities on board with its efforts, trained Afghans to do conservation work, and taken the first photos of snow leopards in the country.
The organization has also played a key role in helping create the processes and institutions required to enforce Afghanistan's environment law -- the first passed by the new government -- which requires creating a designated protected-species list and a method for evaluating it. "That process wouldn't have gone as far as it has without the students," Johnson said.
In a country lacking so many things, though, many may wonder whether conservation work should be a priority -- or whether it's even worth the effort.
Good Governance and Capacity Building
"The Afghan government is really struggling to figure out how to govern its nation," Johnson admits. "But no matter what field you're working in, if you put together a good program, that's important in and of itself. We're trying to give ideas about how things could be run. This program really took off more than we expected. It was easy to understand, and had actual implementation, and now we're being asked about the next step, which is recovery plans for protected species and management plans for harvestable ones."
In addition to contributing to good governance and capacity development, the participants argue, efforts like the one the University of Richmond students worked on can have tangible benefits. "Afghanistan is an overwhelmingly rural area with very rural agriculture, much of it handled very badly. Protecting some species and developing management plans for others is a very important step in having more sustainable management of its resources," said Smallwood, who noted that conserving natural resources could provide a variety of income sources for poverty-stricken locals, including better agricultural opportunities, hunting of species whose numbers have been brought up to a more sustainable level, and ecotourism.
At the very least, Salisbury added, his students' work has helped move knowledge about the country's resources forward by a few decades. "Even if Afghanistan ceases to function, which some say it already has, we've moved ahead from the 1970s with a new baseline of knowledge," he said. "No matter what happens -- even if all is lost -- when things come online again, we can start again from there."
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