WCS Afghanistan

Dasht-e-Nawar wetland is surrounded by the peaks of the Koh-e-Baba range in the province of Ghazni. The whole area encompasses around 600 km2, containing meadow plains,mudflats, brackish ponds and lakes including the largest of all – Ab-e-Nawar.Given the numbers of breeding flamingos in Dasht-e-Nawar (their highest-elevation breeding haunt anywhere in the world at 3,050 m), the wetland was declared a Waterfowl and Flamingo Sanctuary in 1974 by the Directorate of Wildlife and National Parks, and recommendations for the protection of the site were subsequently developed. However, protection measures have never been implemented. 

Ab-e-Estada is also an extremely important staging area in spring and autumn for a variety of migratory waterfowl including (historically) the critically endangered Siberiancrane (Grus leucogeranus). The lake forms a 290 km2 saline wetland in the southern foothills of the Koh-e-Baba and Koh-e-Pahman ranges. At low water levels, Ab-e-Estada is surrounded by mudflats that extend up to 7 km. Flamingos tend to arrive here at high water levels in late March/April and depart when the levels decline in late September or early October. Ab-e-Estada was also declared a National Flamingo and Waterfowl Sanctuary in 1974, and 10 game guards were appointed to stop the hunting and raiding of the nesting colonies. However, the wetlands currently enjoy no institutional protection, and the guards have long since disappeared. 

Recent evidence from Ab-e-Estada suggests it may no longer provide suitable habitat for the greater flamingo. When survey teams from UNEP visited the area in September 2002, the lakebed and inflow rivers were found to be completely dry and, according to local people, the lake had dried every year since 1999. A well that had been dug at its north end revealed the water table to be around 3 m below surface level and at least 30 pumps on the side of the lake were extracting water for the surrounding crops. Moreover, the total human population in the area in 2002 was around 5,000, many of which were active waterfowl and flamingo hunters. Numbers of residents are very likely to have increased since then with the return of displaced communities, putting further pressure on the already-depleted water resources here.

Being sensitive to slight changes in ecological conditions and not breeding for several successive years if environmental factors are not suitable, greater flamingos have been suffering from these declines in water levels. In flowing waters are often diverted for agricultural irrigation purposes, leaving the wetlands hyper-saline, dry or unproductive. Drought conditions prevent the flamingos from feeding successfully, since they are bottom feeders and therefore rely on a good source of aquatic plants and small invertebrates within the mudflats.The flamingos are also affected by harsh climatic conditions such as heavy rains and winds, and high levels of human disturbance from egg collection and hunting. The ongoing conflict in Afghanistan is also having an effect on waterbird populations. Noise disturbance from frequent low-flying aircraft is a threat, and in July 2009, a plane crashed not far from the breeding site of flamingos. When coalition forces sealed off the site, they disturbed the colony by firing at least one rocket at it, perhaps to deter birds from flying towards helicopters. The colony was abandoned and WCS teams later found dozens of dead unfledged chicks of slender-billed gulls (Larus genei), common terns (Sternahirundo) and greater flamingos.

Given these increasing threats and the lack of evidence since 1975 to suggest flamingos were continuing to breed in the area, it was a very encouraging sign when WCS survey teams observed flamingos breeding in Dasht-e-Nawar during 2007. The team first visited the site in the spring of 2007 and observed between 70-80 adult and immature greater flamingos present on Ab-e-Nawar lake, which had water levels almost 1 m high. No breeding behavior was observed here until August, when teams observed 98 unfledged greater flamingo juveniles in one crèche and 20 juveniles in another. The team also visited an island with typical flamingo nests made of truncated mounds of mud, some of them bearing non-hatched eggs. Other immature and adult birds were present in the southern and eastern reaches of the lake, with the survey team estimating a total flamingo population in Dasht-e-Nawar of 850 individuals. Considering surveys carried out between 1960 and 1975 estimated spring/summer populations here at between 1,300 and 12,000 individuals, with a maximum of 400 chicks in 1975, the breeding activity of flamingos in the area appears to have significantly decreased. 

Interviews with inhabitants around Dasht-e-Nawar revealed local perceptions of the flamingo’s status in the area. Forty-nine percent of respondents replied that flamingos were present in Dasht-e-Nawar every year; however nearly 80% of interviewees believed that flamingo numbers had indeed decreased dramatically in the last 10 years or more, due to repeated droughts and a chronic lack of water in the basin. 

These observations from WCS’s site visits confirmed that, despite the pivotal threat to flamingo populations from diversion of in flowing waters, Dasht-e-Nawar is still of exceptional international importance for Afghanistan’s avian fauna. Furthermore, it is perhaps the last breeding haven for the greater flamingo across the highlands of Central Asia. 

With the recent listing of the greater flamingo on Afghanistan’s Protected Species List, this affords the bird legal protection from all hunting and trade. WCS has also been working towards the inclusion of both Ab-e-Estada and Dasht-e-Nawar in the country’s National Protected Area System Plan, which would preserve both of the sites as important waterfowl sanctuaries and encourage the return of the greater flamingo to Afghanistan’s wetlands once again. 

Large billed Reed Warbler

Frequently referred to as the “world’s least known bird”, the large-billed reed warbler (Acrocephalusorinus) is a species that brought delight to conservationists working in Afghanistan and around the world in 2010 when it was reported to be thriving in north-eastern Afghanistan. It was first collected in the Sutlej Valley of Himachal Pradesh in India back in 1867 and, since then,many have debated the bird’s authenticity as a separate species. After collections in north-eastern Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 1930 s (that were never correctly identified as large-billed reed warblers), the next chapter in this species’ history was the trapping of a live individual in winter along the shores of the Inner Gulf of Thailand in 2006 and again in 2008. These limited sightings together with specimens kept in museum collections suggested that the warblers migrated along the Himalayas to winter in northern India and other warmer parts of Southeast Asia, but actually bred in Central Asia.

 In 2008 WCS researchers in the Wakhan Corridor made an extraordinary discovery of the large-billed reed warbler, helping to validate it as a true species and also attain official protection status for it in Afghanistan, at least until more is discovered about its populations and biology. The Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan Province forms a stretch of land over 300 km long that reaches high up into the Pamirs in a unique area that borders Tajikistan,Pakistan and China. It is also flanked in the south by the Hindu Kush mountain range and contains areas of riverine habitat along the Wakhan and Pamir rivers.During the summer of 2008, WCS researchers were conducting a survey along the Amu Darya river (where the Wakhan and Pamir rivers join) aimed at evaluating the status of breeding bird communities along the Corridor. WCS consultant Rob Timmins was walking through typical riparian habitat one early morning in mid-June and saw a lone reed warbler. On closer inspection of its distinctive morphological features and song, and after finding at least 12 other individuals, he suspected that this species was most likely the Blyth’s reed warbler (A. dumetorum). After the survey was complete, Rob visited the Natural History Museum in Tring to clarify his sightings and soon realized that what he saw that morning could well have been the elusive large-billed reed warbler. 

WCS Kabul mobilized immediately to try and find out more the following breeding season. Afghan researchers from WCS organized a mission to the Wakhan in the summer of 2009, and deployed mist nests all along the forested riverside habitat in Wakhan. Using playback from recordings, they successfully caught 15 warblers in these areas plus another four at a location further west from the original site. After examining the photographs and bio metrics, and obtaining DNA sequences, the identification of large-billed reed warblers in Afghanistan were finally confirmed, with the species also appearing to have a surprisingly high genetic diversity. Three very distinctive haplo type groups were found, suggesting that the warbler had undergone a period of separation in its sub populations and that they have devolved independently. Seeing as these three groups now appear to exist together in a single locality, this indicates the separation has now collapsed, perhaps due to a shrinking range. The riparian habitat in this area, with its dense scrubby bush land, provides ideal habitat and breeding conditions for the reed warbler along with a host of other pas serine species such as the blue throat (Luscinia sveccia), mountain chiff chaff (Phylloscopussindianus) and Cetti’s bush warbler (Cettia cetti). It also acts as a perfect riverside corridor for a range of mammals including the common otter(Lutra lutra), cape hare (Lupus capensis), stone marten (Martesfoina) and grey wolf (Canis lupus) and, with sea buck thorn thickets producing large clusters of orange berries every autumn, also provides a source of forage for migratory birds and the Himalayan brown bear (Ursus arctos). 

The large-billed reed warbler’s discovery (or rather “rediscovery”) was very exciting for WCS and helped highlight the importance of the Afghan/ Wakhan riverine habitats both as a probable breeding grounds for the species and as an entire ecosystem in itself, providing refuge for a range of floral and faunal species.Unfortunately, riverine habitats across Afghanistan and its northerly neighbor Tajikistan are under threat from extensive fuel wood collection, land conversion for agriculture and livestock grazing. WCS researchers have noted riverine habitats along the Amu Darya River in Tajikistan are now particularly impoverished and completely destroyed in places. This is all the more alarming since the confirmation of a large-billed reed warbler breeding site in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region of Tajikistan during July 2010. It is up to Tajikistan and Afghanistan to secure this species’ habitat as a matter of urgency, particularly since riverine scrub lands form the reed warbler’s principle breeding habitat. Fortunately, passerines are not generally trapped or hunted by the local people in the Wakhan. Conservation measures put forward by WCS include the development of alternative sources of fuel for local communities and the halting of further agricultural expansion by improving the current cultivated areas.

In February 2010 however, boosted by the news of the bird’s exciting discovery by WCS, the Afghanistan Wildlife Executive Committee (AWEC) and the National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) took official steps to add the warbler to the country’s ever-growing list of Protected Species. The large-billed reed warbler is now protected by law in Afghanistan, helping to raise its profile significantly and encourage further study into its ecology and status, particularly as the species is currently listed on the IUCN’s red list as “data deficient.”  With more information and data collected from Afghanistan, it will hopefully be possible to assign it a more accurate listing and develop strategies to aid its protection.