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'The Snow Leopard Project' Puts Spotlight On Afghanistan's Wildlife

In the city of Kabul, Afghanistan, there is a "green, leafy oasis" called Shahr-e Naw Park — a place that briefly became a staging ground for conservation scientists.

In The Snow Leopard Project and other Adventures in Warzone Conservation, Alex Dehgan describes how his Wildlife Conservation Society team hid stuffed animals throughout the park, simulating as best they could the wildlife the scientists might find on their upcoming survey mission in a remote, rugged province called Nuristan.

"The whole undertaking took on a comic air: the teams, dressed in traditional Pashtu clothing from Nuristan, lumbered under the weight of their equipment," Dehgan writes. "They wandered slowly through the park, using high-powered binoculars and laser range finders to hunt for plush toys."

The image may be comical, but the environmental science Dehgan describes in the book is serious, and fascinating. In Nuristan alone are found populations of various leopards, Asiatic black bears, and a mountain goat called the markhor, able to climb vertical cliffs with aplomb. Dehgan describes the region as a "fairy-tale landscape" of craggy cliffs, cedar and oak forests, and "narrow perilous trails." The Hindu Kush mountains forced the scientists, when they eventually arrived in Nuristan from Kabul, to proceed on foot; not even pack animals could manage the terrain.

All the training paid off. Over a two-year period, the team documented evidence of the animals noted plus more, including rhesus macaques, Afghanistan's only non-human primate, and musk deer, of which there hadn't been a confirmed sighting in 60 years. The deer had survived, Dehgan notes, "despite bombs, insurgency, deforestation, hunting, and war."

War is the backdrop for everything recounted in this book. Dehgan focuses on the years 2006-2007, when he served as Wildlife Conservation Society country director in charge of the Afghanistan Biodiversity Conservation Program. Thirty years of war, including the Russian invasion in 1979, the American invasion in 2001, and the ongoing Taliban insurgency, left widespread regions of the country in ruins.

A primary goal of the conservation program was to establish the country's first national park. (The mission of the more than 100-year-old WCS, which runs five zoos and aquariums in New York City, is to save wildlife and green spaces.) Band-e-Amir, "Afghanistan's answer to the Grand Canyon," is located in Bamiyan Province, home to the famous, massive Buddha statues that were toppled by the Taliban in 2001. Its choice as a site for a national park required coordination at the village, district, provincial and national levels, with "conflicting visions every step of the way," Dehgan writes. He explains in the epilogue that despite enormous challenges, Band-e Amir indeed did become Afghanistan's first national park in 2009, followed five years later by Wakhan National Park in an area called "the rooftop of the world" to which Dehgan devotes a riveting chapter. These parks boosted protection of scores of vulnerable animal species.

Readers who expect, from the volume's title, to sink into a story about snow leopards will learn that these large solitary cats are adapted to mountain living by way of their enormous paws and thick long tails, that they prey on sheep and goats, that decrease in available rangelands has negatively affected their populations — and not a great deal more. A slightly misleading title turns out, in this case, to be the antithesis of a disappointment. The broad scope of The Snow Leopard Project makes for compelling reading, not least because it corrects assumptions some of us may have picked up about Afghanistan during these 18 long years of war. Most Americans view Afghanistan, Dehgan writes, "as an inhospitable, dusty land of mud houses, thick clay walls, and bearded, turbaned men and women in burkas." The reality, of course, is much more complex — and more beautiful.

It's a marvelous choice for Dehgan to put himself in the middle of the story. He mixes humor and pathos in describing how he found himself in Afghanistan following stints as a lemur biologist in Madagascar and working for the U.S. State Dept. helping "redirect" Iraqi weapons scientists toward nation-building, scientific ventures.

Recruited by the WCS after delivering a talk on Iraq at an academic conference, once in Afghanistan he lives through absurd situations and even some close calls. He is dryly funny about some of the mishaps, even the ones that endangered his well-being: the time he was stuck in a no-man's land between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, briefly unable to enter either country; or the time he ran excitedly out of a vehicle to view raptors only to realize he was probably standing in the middle of an active minefield. A harrowing encounter just outside the gates of Bagram Airfield results from his efforts to educate both locals and foreigners — including U.S. military personnel — about the harms of the illegal trade in products such as lynx and snow leopard comforters.

Dehgan is clearly moved by the enormous dedication of his international team of scientists and by the kindness and determination of the Afghan people, who, he says, viewed protection of wildlife as "a chance to rebuild the core identity of who they were." There's no hint here of a self-styled American savior coming to a war-torn land in order to force Western fixes onto local people. An Iranian-American, Dehgan describes his desire to "provide another voice in [the United States'] engagement with the Islamic world." Along with colleagues whom he credits liberally, he helps ensure not only that local people are hired for conservation work but also that Afghan students are empowered to assume scientific leadership in their country.

The Snow Leopard Project illuminates a vital area of science — and a country filled with natural and cultural beauty. I was captivated by Dehgan's writing, chapter by chapter.

Barbara J. King is an author and anthropology professor emerita at the College of William and Mary. Her most recent books are How Animals Grieve and Personalities on the Plate: The Lives & Minds of Animals We Eat.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: February 8, 2019 at 11:00 PM CST
An earlier version of this review misspelled author Alex Dehgan's last name as Deghan in the photo caption.
Barbara J. King is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.