Our knowledge of Afghanistan’s fauna is little, resulting primarily from a very limited number of zoological expeditions undertaken in the country between the late 19th century and the Soviet invasion of the country in 1979. By the outbreak of the Afghan-Soviet war, a total of 137 species of mammals were known to exist in Afghanistan with another 13 species having uncertain status. Among these mammals, carnivores are of particular concern to conservationists. Together with artiodactyls, they form the majority of Afghanistan’s wildlife species listed on the IUCN Red List as being globally at threat. The lion (Panthera leo) and the tiger (Panthera tigris) were extirpated from the country during the past century. Among the 33 species of non-domestic carnivores that, according to a variety of sources, are part of the Afghanistan mammal fauna (see Table 1 below), the following nine are categorized on the IUCN Red List as exposed globally to a certain level of threat:
- Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus)
- Sand cat (Felis margarita)
- Pallas’ cat (Otocolobus manul)
- Common leopard (Panthera pardus)
- Snow leopard (Panthera uncia)
- Striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena)
- Altai weasel (Mustela altaica)
- Marbled polecat (Vormela peregusna)
- Asiatic black bear (Ursus thibetanus)
Since 2006, WCS has verified the presence of 19 species of non-domestic carnivores in Afghanistan (Table 1), including two newly reported species, the common palm civet (Paradoxurus hermaphoditus) in 2008 in Nuristan province (confirmed via camera trap photographs and genetic samples) and the Altai weasel (Mustela altaica) in 2007 in Badakhshan province (direct sighting and photographs). As of 2015, the presence of the remaining 14 species has yet to be confirmed. The lack of verified records results to some extent from the difficulties arising in surveying the large parts of the country inaccessible due to on-going conflict and insecurity.
Table 1. List of carnivores of Afghanistan
Confirmed presence since 2006
Indian grey mongoose
Masked palm civet
Common palm civet
Small Indian civet
Asiatic black bear
Rueppell’s sand fox
Acinonyx jubatus venaticus
RESEARCHED BEAR SPECIES
ASIATIC BLACK BEAR
Afghanistan’s Asiatic black bear (Ursus thibetanus) is a rare sight, hidden in and amongst the rugged terrain of the country’s eastern provinces. When spotted, its black coat and crescent moon patch of white fur on its chest make for a special experience, as WCS estimates its population in the country to be less than 300 animals and declining. This famed tree-climbing bear prefers a forest habitat, residing in areas with a high abundance of oak acorns, beechnuts, walnuts, chestnuts, hazelnuts, and pine seeds that provide this big animal with the calories needed to store fat for winter.
Listing and Protection Status
Data on the Asiatic black bear’s (Ursus thibetanus) population size and trends are lacking. However, the documentation of widespread illegal killing – both retaliatory and especially for trade in parts for traditional medicines – combined with loss of habitat, support the conclusion that this species is likely declining in most parts of its range. Worldwide, the species is listed by IUCN as Vulnerable. In 2009, the Afghan government’s National Environmental Protection Agency officially listed the Asiatic black bear as a legally protected species.
The Asiatic black bear is a medium-sized bear. Its coat is black except for a crescent moon-shaped white patch on its chest. The species is sexually dimorphic. Males weigh about 240-330 pounds (110-150 kg) while females weigh approximately 145-200 pounds (65-90 kg). Their head-body length ranges from 47-71 inches (120-180 cm).
Asiatic black bear diets are variable, changing with food availability throughout the year. They may feed on succulent vegetation, insects, tree and shrub-born fruits and nuts, and possibly meat in some areas of their range. The bear is a notable tree climber. The age of first reproduction is between four and five years, with a maximum lifespan of 30 years in captivity (probably less in the wild). Bears breed from June to July and give birth (one to two cubs every other year) from November to March. The Asiatic black bear hibernates during winter when food is not available.
Habitat and distribution in Afghanistan
Asiatic black bears reside within a variety of forest habitats throughout Asia, including in the broad-leaf and coniferous forest types at elevations ranging from sea level to about 14,110 feet (4,300 m). Once found across most of eastern Afghanistan, Asiatic black bears are now believed to exist only in isolated pockets of forests in remote parts of Afghanistan. Between December 2007 and December 2008, WCS survey teams found evidence of the Asiatic black bear in central Nuristan province at altitudes ranging from 5,600-8,530 feet (1,700-2,600 m), consisting of 19 direct sightings and numerous scats and tracks. Using camera traps, WCS has photographed the species on many occasions in deciduous, coniferous, and evergreen oak forests. Recent reports have only located Asiatic black bears in Nuristan and Kunar provinces.
Afghanistan’s Asiatic black bear population faces numerous conservation challenges. Primary threats include illegal hunting and trading, habitat loss and fragmentation, and lack of law enforcement by the government. Illegal armed logging, human expansion into previously uninhabited regions, and development projects have exacerbated the loss and fragmentation of the bear’s available habitat. Furthermore, as humans continue to expand into uninhabited areas, human-bear conflicts and livestock depredation are becoming more of a problem. In Nuristan, the Asiatic black bear suffers significant retaliatory killings for its predation on livestock and raiding crops. Baiting (where bears are made to fight with dogs) and bear dancing also remain significant problems in the country.
WCS pioneered work in Afghanistan on Asiatic black bear conservation. Prior to the start of WCS activities in Afghanistan in 2006, information on the status of the bear in the country was virtually unknown. Today, as a result of WCS’s initiatives, the enigmatic animal is on Afghanistan’s list of protected species, conservation and protection of the Asiatic black bear is included in the country’s environmental, forestry, and hunting laws and regulations; and WCS-led wildlife surveys and camera trap efforts have been able to confirm their presence in parts of the country.
As one of the world’s largest living carnivores, brown bears (Ursus arctos) have long captured the attention of scientists, scholars, and curious individuals alike. They can stand up and walk on the soles of their feet, use their finger-like claws to munch on everything from small berries and grubs to full-grown moose, and communicate with each other through sounds, scents, and scratch markings on trees. While the IUCN lists the brown bear as an animal of ‘least concern,’ their population status in Afghanistan is of suspected decline. As a result, in 2009 the Afghan government’s National Environmental Protection Agency officially listed the species as legally protected.
Listing and Protection Status
The brown bear (Ursus arctos) is categorized by IUCN as ‘least concern’. Due to the brown bear’s suspected population decline in Afghanistan over the past three decades, the Afghan government’s National Environmental Protection Agency officially listed the species as legally protected in 2009.
Brown bears are considered one of the largest carnivores on earth; however morphology varies greatly throughout its range. On average, the species measures between 47-110 inches (120-280 cm) in head-body length and weighs between 220-772 pounds (100-350 kg) with males being slightly larger than females. In Afghanistan, specific data for the brown bear’s size are poorly known, but information from sightings in the Pamirs indicates a body mass range of 220-400 pounds (100-180 kg). Coloration is highly variable across the species, with appearances ranging from dark brown to cream or black.
Brown bears have the most varied diet of any bear species, feeding on everything from grasses to other species of bear. In Afghanistan, the brown bear’s diet consists largely of vegetation, including grasses, sedges, roots, moss, bulbs, and berries. In the Pamirs, long-tailed marmots (Marmota caudata) are a frequent prey. Brown bears are active throughout spring, summer, and some of autumn, with hibernation beginning anywhere from October to December and lasting until the end of March or beginning of May. The exact timing of a hibernation period depends on the weather, location, and condition of the animal. During hibernation, bears experience depressed heart and respiration rates; however, they can be easily woken by small disturbances. Mating occurs from May to July and births generally occur during the hibernation period from January to March. A brown bear averages about two young every two to four years. Brown bears reach sexual maturation at around four to six years of age and live up to 25 years in the wild.
Habitat and distribution in Afghanistan
The brown bear is highly adaptable, occupying more varieties of habitat than any other species of bear. In Central Asia, the brown bear has been reported primarily within alpine meadows and subalpine forests between 8,530-16,400 feet (2,600-5,000 m). In Afghanistan, the brown bear is known to reside in the northeastern part of the country, including in Darwaz and Wakhan districts of Badakhshan province, northern Nuristan province, and possibly in Panjshir province. However, the complete extent of the brown bear’s distribution in Afghanistan remains unknown.
The major challenges to brown bear conservation in Afghanistan include fear and retaliatory killings, poaching for use in traditional medicine, habitat degradation, and lack of law enforcement by the government. Deforestation, human habitat encroachment, and an increase in the number of livestock amplify these threats.
Many brown bears are shot by hunters in the field. These poachers do not appear to specifically target bears but kill them out of curiosity or fear, particularly when they encounter them while searching for wild ungulates. In the Darwaz area of northern Badakhshan provinces, local people use bear fat as a traditional medicine and the bear’s fur as a warm sleeping mat for people with leg or back pain. Retaliatory killing appears to be an increasing threat as a result of livestock overgrazing and climate change. Sub-optimal fattening in autumn because of lack of forage and milder temperatures in winter may be indirectly responsible for premature arousal from hibernation at a time when the local environment has little to offer to hungry bears besides vulnerable livestock.
WCS is actively involved in conserving Afghanistan’s brown bears. Since 2006, WCS Afghanistan has engaged in extensive work throughout the country to protect the brown bear, with specific focus on community engagement and livestock protection to prevent retaliatory killings, fieldwork and survey activities to monitor the country’s brown bear numbers, and the creation and management of the Wakhan National Park in Badakhshan province to protect one of the brown bear’s primary habitats in the country.
 For more information, see “Ursus thibetanus,” IUCN Red List of Endangered Species, <http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/22824/0>. Last accessed August 2016.
 For more information, see “Ursus arctos,” IUCN Red List of Endangered Species, <http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/41688/0>. Last accessed August 2016.