For the first time, the government of Afghanistan has banned the hunting, harvesting or trading of 33 species, including the increasingly rare snow leopard (Panthera uncia), the paghman salamander (Paradactylodon mustersi), goitered gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa), and Himalayan elm tree (Ulmus wallichiana). "This is the first law within the current government that protects wildlife," says Peter Zahler, Assistant Director for Asia Programs for the Bronx-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which helped to create the list.

All told, 20 mammals, seven birds, four plants, one amphibian and one insect are now protected.

The species list will be administered by Afghanistan's National Environment Protection Agency (NEPA) and the Afghanistan Wildlife Executive Committee. Decisions on which species to protect were based on the current scientific studies for Afghanistan and the region, as well as the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, according to the WCS.

This is the first time that snow leopards, which are protected under international law, are also protected in their homeland. According to a WCS statement, snow leopard pelts can be found for sale for up to $1,500, a veritable fortune in Afghanistan.

According to the IUCN Red List, just 100 to 200 snow leopards are estimated to remain in Afghanistan, spread out over a 50,000 square kilometer habitat. Worldwide populations for the species are estimated at 4,000 to 6,000.

Now that this list of species has been established, NEPA will develop recovery plans for the protected species designated as threatened. It will also continue to evaluate new species (WCS says the list could expand to 70 species by the end of the year) and re-evaluate protected species every five years to see if they still deserve protection.

Of course, with a country like Afghanistan, letting local communities know about the new rules, and then enforcing them, is going to be a challenge. "The central government does not reach very far," says Zahler. "It's very hard to get this information out, and then hard to enforce the rules throughout Afghanistan. A lot of the agencies that do have offices out in the countryside are not well trained."

But that doesn't mean it's an impossible task. WCS now plans to work with both government agencies and local communities to spread the word about the new rules, and teach communities to self-manage their own wildlife. "We're going to need to depend a lot of community self-management," says Zahler. "In the immediate future, the central government will not have strong control over many parts of the country. The local communities often can and will take the steps to enforce these laws.

"This is an enormous step by a country that, in its most recent incarnation, is still very young," says Zahler. "The process of enforcing is slow and laborious, but we're hoping that over time it will take shape."

Image: Snow leopard, via Wikipedia