Science and conservation help unite the worst of enemies in war torn Afghanistan

Even in wartorn countries like Afghanistan, there is a surprising bridge that could unite the worst of enemies, including the Taliban, Afghan opposition figures, refugees, and U.S. officials. This bridge transcends ethnicity, religion, language, culture, and politics: conserving natural resources.


If people are willing to go to war over land, it makes sense they have a profound interest in conserving the resources and wildlife on that territory. Those resources provide people with a sense of national identity, inextricably linked to the land, giving a boost to Afghan nationalism and pride.


Enemies in Afghanistan’s warzones find surprising common ground through working with scientists to save endangered species like the Asiatic cheetah and snow leopard.


The Asiatic cheetah is one of the world’s most critically endangered big cats with possibly as few as twenty left in the world.


In 2014, a 4,200-square-mile national park was created in Wakhan, Afghanistan. The park and its snow leopard population are already serving as a tourist attraction in one of the poorest and most isolated regions of the country.


“When peace returns to Afghanistan—and it will, as no war lasts forever—Wakhan has great potential for ecotourism,” Mostapha Zaher, director general of the National Environment Protection Agency in Afghanistan, told AP.


Alex Dehgan, co-founder and CEO of Conservation X Labs, is working to address human causes of extinction such as climate change. He is the author of The Snow Leopard Project and other Adventures in Warzone Conservation, which discusses how he built a startup in a warzone.


Dehgan says that the people of Afghanistan readily recognize the link between conservation and national security.


“Afghanistan was the easiest place I did conservation because the people there understood the link between natural resources and their security, human security and national security,” says Dehgan.

Even the Taliban, known for its aim to impose Islamic law on Afghanistan and remove foreign influence from the country, has an interest in conservation.


“Even if the Taliban is in charge, they still have to govern, they still have to deal with water quality, sanitation issues, trans-boundary water issues, and with the health of their people and with keeping the livestock alive,” explains Dehgan.

Science and technology provide solutions needed by everyone.

“And ultimately, that requires science and technology and effective systems to solve that. So while I think they would be less receptive than the current government, I still think there could be a place for it.”

The author says that conservation is an “essential component of postwar reconstruction.”


“For people who had spent much of the previous three decades as refugees in other countries, protecting the unique and charismatic wildlife of the country was a way to help restore their identity,” he writes.

Dehgan previously worked with the Wildlife Conservation Society to help establish the first national park in Afghanistan, Band-e-Amir. The park features a tropical-looking turquoise-blue lake. Since its founding in 2009, the park has seen a surge in tourism from Afghan citizens. Snow leopards, wild sheep, wolves, foxes, and the Afghan snow finch call the park home.



Wildlife Conservation Society president Dr. Steven E. Sanderson said the park was a source of pride with international support. Since its founding, more parks have been established.


Efforts by Deghan and his team were able to foster communication and cooperation between Afghanistan’s national government, provincial government, and local government. The team also helped to train the next generation of conservationists by hiring and working alongside Afghans.


“By protecting [Afghanistan’s natural] resources, we were doing as much for security and governance and democracy as anyone else in the country,” he said.

Although it may sound like a relatively new idea, making inroads to peace through conservation efforts are not new. Dehgan, a former State Department official, notes that the US has historically maintained scientific exchange programs with our adversaries, including the Soviet Union, Iran, and Iraq.


Although scientific efforts in the name of conservation seem to transcend politics, there are definite risks.


Today in Iran, eight environmental researchers like Deghan have been jailed for their conservation attempts. They were attempting to study the Asiatic cheetah but authorities accused them of spying. Now four of them face charges of “sowing corruption on Earth” and could face the death penalty. Conservation groups and Dehgan are trying to ensure they get a fair trial.


Conservation efforts remain one of the most effective ways to bring people together, even in warzones.  For the sake of peace and for endangered animals, we hope these brave researchers will return home safely. Their work has never been more important.


See Deghan talk about his efforts in Afghanistan below:

Snow leopard via Wikimedia Commons



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Matthew Silvan

Progressive liberal from the American south. Working to educate and inform on issues like preserving the environment, equality for minorities and women, and improving the quality of life for mankind and our ecosystem. Following the facts in the face of a movement to follow only the money.

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