Horses tromped through the dense thickets of willows and reeds, tamarisks and grasses. “It was very hard to see in the forest,” said Zalmai Moheb, remembering a cool winter morning in 2013.
Moheb, an ecologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, had been with a team of researchers and field guides in Takhar province in northeast Afghanistan. They were silent as they steadily moved through the thick shrubbery, riding horses so they could explore more areas than they otherwise would have been able to reach.
Suddenly, they saw movement in the tall reeds. “Look! Look! Bactrian deer!” exclaimed one of the guides, pointing a finger.
Moheb’s head whipped around at the sound, and he caught the marvelous sight: a female deer, probably about 2 or 3 years old, running away from the horsemen.
“It was, maybe, 30 or 35 meters away from us,” Moheb said. “It all happened so fast, we didn’t get a chance to take a photo.”
But that fleeting glimpse of the animal was enough to confirm a most improbable rumor. The Bactrian deer, believed to have gone locally extinct in Afghanistan after decades of war and turmoil, had somehow survived in the country.
“It was like, wow, after 40 years, we can confirm this animal exists here,” Moheb, a Fulbright scholar and Ph.D. student at the University of Massachusetts, told The Huffington Post last week. “We were hugging each other and congratulating each other. It was an exciting moment. I turned to the others and said, ‘Well, guys, that’s it. Let’s have a party.’”
The discovery, Moheb said, was not just a testament of nature’s tenacity in the face of human destruction, but also a harbinger of hope for the future of conservation as a whole in Afghanistan, a country where environmental issues has long taken a backseat.
“After years of instability and firings and bombings and war, it’s hard to expect animal populations to survive. But then you realize how resilient animals are,” Moheb said. “This gives us hope, a lot of hope, for conservation. It tells us that it’s never too late to start.”
In the weeks leading up to their memorable encounter in the forest, researchers had heard from locals that the Bactrian deer ― Afghanistan’s largest deer ― had been spotted in Darqad, the northernmost district of Takhar province.
But Moheb and his team had been doubtful of the claims.
Wildlife conservation had been practically nonexistent in Afghanistan since the start of a series of civil wars and the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1970s.
“The country had other priorities,” Moheb said. “So for decades, there was almost no information about wildlife populations.”
But a nascent conservation movement had taken root in the country. In 2005, then-President Hamid Karzai established the National Environmental Protection Agency, the first such entity of its kind in Afghanistan; a year later, the Afghan chapter of the Wildlife Conservation Society was established.
“At the time, there was this 30-year gap in knowledge. People didn’t know what was left, or even if it was left,” said Peter Zahler, regional director of WCS Asia, speaking from New York on Thursday. “There was a real need to recreate this baseline knowledge.”
So WCS researchers ― including Moheb, who joined the organization in 2009 ― began conducting field research and surveys, tracking native species like ibex, snow leopards and Bactrian bear.
The Bactrian deer, a deer subspecies similar to the elk that’s only found in parts of Central Asia, was also of great interest to conservationists.
For decades, however, there had been no official record in Afghanistan of the deer. The last population estimate, reached in the early 1970s, had numbered the animal at just 120 individuals in the country. In the years that followed, the mujahideen had fought against the Soviets in areas where the Bactrian deer had once roamed. Deforestation of the animals’ habitat and widespread hunting are also believed to have threatened Bactrian deer populations.
A few survey teams had gone looking for Bactrian deer in 2007 and 2008 without any results, Moheb said ― hence the researchers’ skepticism when villagers said they’d seen the animal in Takhar province.
“The belief was that the Bactrian deer had gone extinct in Afghanistan,” he explained. “The conservation community was not very confident that the animal could be found.”
But when the researchers went searching, they found droppings and hoof marks that appeared to confirm the sightings. Then, on that unforgettable morning of Dec. 3, 2013, they saw the deer with their own eyes.
It’s impossible to estimate the number of Bactrian deer currently living in Afghanistan, said the researchers, whose findings were described in an assessment of the Bactrian deer published in the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Deer Specialist Group newsletter in May.
Conservation efforts in the former Soviet Union area have helped the global population of the animal go up from about 400 individuals in the 1960s to an estimated 1,900 free-ranging animals in 2011, the researchers said. Rigorous conservation efforts must still be undertaken in Afghanistan, however, to help the deer resettle in its old home.
The IUCN currently doesn’t consider the Bactrian deer threatened, but it’s considering reclassifying the animal to reflect its continued vulnerability in the wild, according to a September BBC report. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers the Bactrian deer endangered “wherever found.”
People ask you: In a country where people don’t even care about humans, how can you ask me to care about wildlife? Zalmai Moheb
Conservationists continue to face many challenges in Afghanistan. Instability has returned to the Darqad area, after fighting involving the Taliban recently erupted.
In the face of such turmoil, wildlife protection can be an especially hard sell.
“It can be hard to convince people why we’re doing this,” Moheb said. “People ask you: In a country where people don’t even care about humans, how can you ask me to care about wildlife?”
But on the whole, wildlife conservation efforts have been fruitful in the country.
Despite ongoing conflict, researchers have managed to locate several rare and elusive animal populations in recent years. In 2011, the WCS said it found several native species, including Asiatic black bears, gray wolves and leopard cats, surviving in the remote and war-torn province of Nuristan. The WCS has also been successful in tracking snow leopards in the country. So far, four of the big cats have been collared and monitored locally, offering insight into the animals’ range and behavior.
Zahler, who designed and started the WCS Afghanistan program in 2006, said the government of Afghanistan has played a critical role in furthering conservation efforts in the country. In 2009, the government named the country’s first ever national park, Band-e-Amir. Two years ago, a second was created ― the breathtaking Wakhan National Park, which is home to snow leopards, ibex and the iconic Marco Polo sheep.
“The government has been very positive about the whole effort,” Zahler said. “They really get the fact that natural resource management is an important part of a country’s safety and security. They’ve been very committed.”
Afghanistan’s story could teach us a lot about conservation amid war, said Zahler and Moheb.
Over 90 percent of major armed conflicts between 1950 and 2000 occurred within countries containing biodiversity hotspots, and more than 80 percent occurred within the hotspots themselves, according to a 2009 study. Such conflicts can put communities, as well as ecosystems and wildlife populations, at serious risk.
“My personal opinion is Afghanistan has been very successful in this area because it worked on multiple levels simultaneously,” Zahler said. “That’s the problem with countries in conflict and even those that aren’t necessarily in conflict — a lot needs to be done and if you work on just one aspect, you may not be successful.
For Moheb, Afghanistan’s conservation wins, like his team’s Bactrian deer discovery, is a reminder to “just do it”— even in the face of enormous challenges.
“I think this shows us that there’s hope. The only thing we need to do is start conservation efforts, start conserving those habitats and the animals will recover, populations will recover,” he said. “When [Afghan] people ask me why they should care about these animals, I tell them: Yes, conflict may be going on but if we wait till the war is finished and instability is finished, by that time, we may not have any wildlife left. We need to care today.”