Afghanistan's snow leopard under threat from big game hunters

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The Independent Online

Rare snow leopards and mountain sheep are at risk from American and European big game hunters willing to pay $40,000 (£21,000) for the chance to shoot in one of the remotest corners of Afghanistan.

Rare snow leopards and mountain sheep are at risk from American and European big game hunters willing to pay $40,000 (£21,000) for the chance to shoot in one of the remotest corners of Afghanistan.

A strip of Afghan territory called the Wakhan, high in the Pamir mountains and bordered by Tajikistan, China and Pakistan, has survived years of war relatively unspoiled as a refuge for some of Asia's rarest high- altitude wildlife. But hunting companies are turning their attention to the almost virgin wilderness in Afghanistan's north-east after populations of the Marco Polo sheep, a popular target for trophy-seekers, were depleted by over-hunting in Tajikistan, where corrupt officials issue shooting licences for bribes.

The huge curled horns on Marco Polo rams, named after the Venetian traveller who passed through on his way to China, can weigh up to 45lbs. Rumours of an illegal shooting trip by a well-heeled American woman have surfaced, and companies based in Alaska and Montana are now thought to be lobbying the Afghan government to throw the Wakhan open to their clients.

Conservationists say a hunting ban must continue and the area given protected status as a national park to protect the fragile Alpine wilderness. It was "rediscovered" only in 2002, when the British conservationist Anthony Fitzherbert led the first expedition to study the Wakhan's wildlife since the late 1970s. The team, sponsored by the UN Environment Programme (Unep), discovered thriving populations of Marco Polo sheep, Siberian ibexes, snow leopards, lynxes and brown bears.

"Against all the odds the Wakhan and its wildlife have survived, if seriously threatened," Mr Fitzherbert said. "Now the threat is from badly managed tourism and trophy hunting as roads and communications improve and more foreigners start coming to Afghanistan. American hunting companies are going to be prepared to spend a lot of money to start this business. There is going to be a lot of pressure on Kabul."

Until the late 1970s the Wakhan was a royal hunting preserve. A dozen licences to shoot Marco Polo rams were issued annually for wealthy clients, including oil sheikhs and the Shah of Iran's brother. Unep and the Asian Development Bank are among those now drawing up plans to preserve the region's wildlife, in the hope that the Kabul government will introduce legal protection. Mr Fitzherbert said: "If there is going to be hunting, the community there should derive the benefits and be helped to manage it sustainably. What we fear is that profits just go to corrupt government officials and hunting companies."

Conservationists hope to create an international peace park, extending across the artificial boundaries of Tajikistan, Afghanistan, China and Pakistan. The Wakhan, a land of peaks over 20,000ft, glaciers, perpetual snow and thin pastures, is a product of 19th-century big power politics: in the 1890s Britain forced Afghanistan to accept the long finger of territory, pointing towards China, as a neutral buffer zone between the British and Russian empires.

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