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‘Together we started forward into those bitter cold mountainous parts, and never a road broader than the back

of your hand.’



Afghanistan’s geography has played a key role in its history. It is divided into three main zones – the northern steppe, the southern desert pla- teau, and between them the massive spine of the Hindu Kush mountain range. The flat north and west open out to the grass plains of Central Asia and the Iranian plateau – well-trodden invasion routes throughout the centuries, this area was also part of the highway for goods and ideas that formed the Silk Road. The dry south has been a hinterland between empires from Persia and the Indian subcontinent, while the great craggy peaks that dominate the country have given refuge to its people, and made it hard for any power to conquer them completely. The Hindu Kush mark the westernmost outpost of the Great Himalaya

Range, caused by the ancient collision of the Indian and Asian tectonic plates. Two fault lines – the Chaman and Hari Rud – pass through Af- ghanistan, making it prone to earthquakes. In the northeast, the Hindu Kush rises in a massive knot where it meets the Pamirs, which are still slowly rising. Water from here drains into the Amu Darya to be ulti- mately lost in the dry reaches of Central Asia; most of the rivers in the Hindu Kush are on the Indian side of the continental watershed, destined to join the Indus in Pakistan and eventually the Arabian Sea. Mountain areas are very prone to flooding in winter and spring. Only the eastern provinces of Kunar and Laghman catch the dying breaths of the Indian monsoon, allowing rich forest to develop. A key feature of the northern plains are the rounded hills of loess, a fine glacial dust blown in from China. This dust makes the plains extremely fertile, as shown by the annual explosion of plant life during the spring rains.

The name Hindu Kush is supposed to mean ‘killer of Indians’, a definition first cited by the great traveller Ibn Battuta in 1334.

The south is a land of deserts (dasht). Lack of water here is a perennial problem. Afghans have developed a sophisticated system of kareez, or underground irrigation canals, to carry water from the foothills, often over hundred of kilometres. Many kareez are several hundred years old. These were once far more extensive, allowing the Ghaznavid empire to flourish in the region in the 11th to 12th centuries. Genghis Khan did huge damage to this intricate irrigation system, and taken with the result- ing depopulation, left an environmental scar that the south has arguably yet to recover from.


Afghanistan is home to a wide variety of wildlife. Its location means that it straddles both northern temperate and southern tropical zones, as well as being a key staging point for many migratory bird species. Unfortu- nately, war, habitat destruction and the easy availability of firearms have all conspired to wreak havoc on Afghan species.


The most famous of Afghan animals is perhaps the Marco Polo sheep, named for the traveller who first described them to the west. Standing over a metre at the shoulder with a pale grey coat, the rams have tre- mendous spiral horns that curve up to 150cm in length. It is a mountain species, found in the Wakhan Corridor, but also in Tajikistan, Xinjiang in China, and northern Pakistan. Marco Polo noted that local herders made


The snow leopard (Dari: palang-e barfi) is at once the loveliest and most elusive of Afghanistan’s large mammals. It is restricted to the Pamir Knot and the high slopes of Badakhshan, possibly extending into Nuristan. It is a much bulkier animal than the common leopard, with large paws, thick grey spotted fur and a long tail that makes it supremely adapted to its mountain environment. Its preys ranges in size from marmots to ibex, although it is also fond of domestic livestock. This fact is a key problem for the snow leopard’s continued survival. Attacks on livestock enclo-

sures often follow the ‘fox in a chicken coop’ template, with the animal killing more than it could eat. Hunting as a result of predation is the main cause of snow leopard death in the Wakhan. Pelts are generally sold to itinerant merchants, eventually finding their way to Kabuli fur traders. The trade is illegal, and although a hunting ban in the Wakhan appear to be respected by locals, enforcement of antipoaching laws for all species hunted for pelts (also including lynx, wolves and common leopard) remains a problem.

cairns of the horns and bones as landmarks along trails, something the Wakhi and Kyrgyz still do today. There are several other fine mountain sheep and goat species, now mostly confined to Badakhshan and other provinces bordering Pakistan. These include the markhor, with its cork- screw twisted horns, the urial sheep and the magnificent Siberian ibex. Until the war, these were all more widespread throughout the country. The desert-dwelling goitered gazelle – a favoured hunting quarry of the Mughal emperors – is close to extinction in the country. Where there is prey, there are predators. The snow leopard (see above ) is only the most renowned. The common leopard remains thinly spread across the country, in hill country, mountains and plains. Similar habi- tats also support the grey wolf, which exists in pairs or family groups rather than the more commonly imagined large packs, as well as jack- als. The brown bear persists in Badakhshan and Nuristan, but its status is unknown. The related but smaller black bear stills hangs on in tiny numbers in Nuristan. Afghanistan once also supported populations of the Caspian tiger (now completely extinct) in the marshlands and forests along the Amu Darya, and Asiatic cheetah, used for hunting gazelle. Small numbers of striped hyena can still be found in the scrub and deserts of the south.

The rhesus macaque is the only primate in Afghanistan and is found in the forests of Nuristan.


There are over 460 species of bird recorded in Afghanistan, with nearly 200 of those breeding in the country. Species are mostly Palearctic, (from Europe, the Mediterranean and North Asia), with a significant number from the Indian subcontinent. Commonly seen species include the mynah, rock dove, bulbul and buz- zard. In the mountains, ravens and choughs are regularly seen. Large rap- tors include the black vulture and the huge lammergeier, both of which can be spotted in remote mountain areas. Birds of prey have commonly been seen as an important trade item for some groups, and are captured for hunting or selling on to Arabs. Afghanistan forms an important corridor for migrating waterbirds, with the south traditionally serving as an over-wintering ground, and species flying north over the Salang Pass in spring and summer. These range in size from small ducks and waders up to storks, although the Siberian crane has not been seen for several years.

ENVIRONMENT •• Wildlife 65

‘There are great quanti- ties of wild sheep of huge size. Their horns grow to as much as six palms in length and are never less

than three or four’.

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