KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan's snow leopards have barely survived three decades of war. But now the few remaining mountain leopards left in Afghanistan face another threat -- foreigners involved in rebuilding the war-torn country.
Despite a complete hunting ban across Afghanistan since 2002, snow leopard furs regularly end up for sale on international military bases and at tourist bazaars in the capital. Foreigners have ready cash to buy the pelts as souvenirs and impoverished Afghans break poaching laws to supply them.
Tucked between souvenir stores on Chicken Street, Kabul's main tourist trap, several shops sell fur coats and pelts taken from many of Afghanistan's threatened and endangered animals.
"This one is only $300," one shopkeeper told Reuters, producing a snow leopard pelt from the back of his shop.
"It was shot several times," he said pointing to the patches of fur sewn together. "The better ones are only shot once. The skin remains intact," he says as his assistant brings out a larger pelt, this time with no patches. "This one is $900."
All the shopkeepers said they had more pelts at home and that they had sold furs to foreigners over the past few weeks.
Asked if it was easy to send the furs back home, one shopkeeper who did not want to be named said: "No problem! We hide the fur inside blankets and send it back to your country."
Snow leopards along with several other animals in Afghanistan are listed as endangered or threatened under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Anyone caught knowingly transporting a fur across an international border is liable to a large fine. In the United States, it could result in a $100,000 fine and one year jail term.
It is hard to know the exact numbers of snow leopards left in Afghanistan due to the creatures' elusive nature and the lack of any case studies during the last three decades of conflict, said Dr. Peter Smallwood, Afghanistan country director for the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).
But what is known is that the snow leopard is endangered.
"If you look historically at Afghanistan, Afghanistan actually had more big cat species than the entire continent of Africa," said Clayton Miller, Environmental Advisor to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
"Now the only cat species that is not on the threatened and endangered species list is the domestic cat.
Destruction of infrastructure, movements of refugees, modern weaponry, extreme poverty and a lack of law enforcement together with drought and deforestation are just some of the factors that have devastated Afghanistan's flora and fauna.
There are now only between 100 to 200 snow leopards estimated to be left in Afghanistan. In comparison, Bhutan has the same number but has three times less the area of habitat.
The estimated number of snow leopards in the wild worldwide is between 3,500 and 7000, according to the International Snow Leopard Trust (ISLT).
Snow leopards in Afghanistan mainly inhabit the extreme northeast of the country in particular the remote sliver of land called the Wakhan Corridor which separates Tajikistan from Pakistan and extends all the way to China.
The mountainous Wakhan is sparsely populated by humans but is a vital link for the snow leopard.
"The Wakhan is a critical area because ... you're going to get snow leopards going between Tajikistan, Pakistan and China through the Wakhan valley, so it's a key, key area. Its importance far outweighs its physical size," Smallwood said.
When the U.S. embassy's Miller first moved to Afghanistan he discovered a widespread practice of selling endangered animal parts to foreigners.
"There were threatened and endangered species being marketed to international personnel, not only military but aid mission folks and anybody visiting the bazaar," said Miller.
In a bid to stop poaching of snow leopards, the U.S. embassy and the WCS targeted the buyers.
"We decided that one of the quickest ways of trying to address this issue was to go after the demand. The only individuals that are actually able to purchase these things were internationals," Miller told Reuters.
Snow leopard pelts can sell for up to $1500, well beyond the means of most Afghans.
Since August last year, Miller and the WCS have been educating military and civilian staff, in particular those in charge of mail services, on how to recognize endangered and threatened animal furs as well as conducting "raids" on U.S. military bases.
The raids have yielded products from endangered species including snow leopards, said Miller, but he stressed the U.S. military was very "cooperative" in trying to combat the trade.
Within two weeks of their first training session on a U.S. base just outside Kabul, the military had managed to "virtually eliminate" any trade of these products on the base, he said.
Local traders who offer their wares on military bases are issued with a warning if they are caught selling the furs and are barred from returning if caught again.
Because of the structured nature of the military, said Smallwood, it is easier to get the message delivered.
"The harder part is trying to deliver the message to the rest of the international community, which we're working on," he said.
But the threats to the snow leopard still remain.
"With numbers this low I wouldn't want to say ...if we just fix this problem the rest is fine. All of these problems need to be dealt with. Losing 10 animals could be as much as 10 percent of the population," Smallwood said.
Editing by Megan Goldin