Deep within the mountainous forests of Nuristan, something remarkable has reared its mottled head: a common palm civet. And that’s not all—Asiatic black bears, gray wolves, markhor goats, and leopard cats also lurk beneath the canopy.

These animals are some of the survivors that WCS researchers documented between 2006 and 2009 while surveying Afghanistan’s conflict-plagued eastern province of Nuristan. The study is the first of its kind since 1977, and was supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). It appears in the latest edition of the journal Oryx.

The field team used camera-trap surveys, transect surveys, and DNA identification of scat samples to census an area of approximately 425 square miles. The researchers confirmed the presence of several important species in the region’s montane deciduous and coniferous forests, including the first documented sighting of the common palm civet in Afghanistan. The results mirror studies in other parts of Afghanistan indicating that wildlife continues to survive despite deforestation, habitat degradation, and decades of political instability.

“This ongoing work in Afghanistan by WCS, supported by USAID, ensures the protection of wildlife and has a long-term positive effect on local communities,” said Steven Sanderson, WCS President and CEO. “The surveys confirm the presence of globally important species in the area, despite indications of habitat loss and uncontrolled hunting. This highlights the need for targeted conservation programs to protect forest resources—including wildlife—that provide livelihoods for people. Sustainable natural resource management, including teaching new skills and building governance structures in local communities, can help stabilize the region, which has the effect of improving U.S. national security.”

WCS has had a full-time presence in Afghanistan since 2006 and continues to be the only conservation NGO operating there. WCS works on community conservation, conservation education, institution building, training, capacity building, and wildlife trade issues.

USAID funding for resource management projects in conflict regions like Afghanistan helps stabilize areas without military intervention, potentially saving U.S. money and lives. However, the U.S. foreign assistance budget is in danger of being cut dramatically this year, particularly the USAID Biodiversity Program, which would put beneficial projects like community-based wildlife monitoring and natural resource management in jeopardy.

The authors of the study noted that opportunities for implementing wildlife conservation measures in Afghanistan are limited due to security challenges. While the remoteness of Nuristan province provides some protection for wildlife, the effects of 30 years without effective management practices to limit unregulated logging and hunting mean that forests and wildlife are very much at risk. Continued loss of these resources may result in economic hardship that could further destabilize the region.

For more information, see the press release.