The Bronx Zoo-based Wildlife Conservation Society in cooperation with the United States Agency for International Development, the U.S. Embassy (Kabul), the U.S. Department of Defense, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently provided training to the U.S. military in Afghanistan to help reduce illegal trade that threatens one of this nation’s most precious natural resources—its unique wildlife. The training took place at the Bagram Airbase to educate the U.S. Army Post Office and customs personnel to prevent soldiers who may unknowingly purchase pelts from endangered species from attempting to ship them home as souvenirs and incur substantial financial and legal penalties for doing so.
Afghanistan is home to endangered snow leopards, Persian leopards, Marco Polo sheep and other unique wildlife protected by international laws and treaties. However, skins, pelts and other animal parts from endangered species killed by poachers still regularly wind up in local markets and are sold to captive audiences, such as U.S. Coalition soldiers, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and the international development and reconstruction community who are unaware of what they are buying.
Hunting has driven the Caspian tiger and perhaps the Asiatic cheetah to extinction in Afghanistan.
According to Dr. Alex Dehgan, who runs the Wildlife Conservation Society's Afghanistan program (funded by the United States Agency for International Development), the training work is part of a larger campaign against wildlife trade in Afghanistan. The campaign includes advertisements, posters in airports, and educational materials for schools, along with editorials and newspaper articles for the Afghan and expatriate community. Even many fur shops are now assisting WCS in the process, providing samples for genetic tests, and for training military personnel.
“The training that Wildlife Conservation Society and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently gave at Bagram Airbase for nearly all the U.S. Customs and Military Postal Service officials in Afghanistan went extremely well,” said Dr. Dehgan. “The soldiers were very enthusiastic and dedicated to learning and started developing ideas among themselves to make this initiative successful. The training has immediately paid off with the seizure of illegal skins, and WCS and the EPA are now working with the military to prevent the sale of endangered species skins so soldiers won't inadvertently lose their money due to unscrupulous merchants.” The training was provided by Dr. Dehgan of the Wildlife Conservation Society and Clay Miller of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“We had a very informative briefing and hands-on session. The more people that we can bring awareness to on this issue, the better for everyone in the long run,” said U.S. Army Operations Sergeant SFC Thomas A. Lockhart. “Many are not aware of what they are purchasing, and I have not met any Service Members that would knowingly traffic illegal animals and furs.”
The Wildlife Conservation Society and the U.S. Embassy are working to increase efforts to stop furs from being sold at U.S., ISAF, and Coalition airbases, and to train the Afghan customs officials as well. WCS is currently the only organization conducting scientific conservation studies in Afghanistan in the past 30 years, and is working with the Afghan government to establish a network of parks and protected areas under a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Agency for International Development.