Traveling through war-torn areas at risk of encountering landmines, militia, and difficult terrain, Alex Dehgan was protected only by a borrowed Toyota Corolla. Dehgan, the Chanler Innovator in Residence at Duke, has spent much of his life overseas addressing conflict in Afghanistan through promoting wildlife conservation.
As a result, Dehgan has served in multiple positions within the U.S. Department of State, including the office of the secretary, and the bureau of Near Eastern affairs. There, he aided in addressing foreign policy issues in Iran, Iraq, and Egypt and contributed to the improvement of science diplomacy. Recently, he founded the Office of Science and Technology as the Chief Scientist at the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Dehgan recently gave a talk at Duke on the snow leopard project, an effort he spearheaded focusing on snow leopard (Panthera uncia) and other wildlife conservation in Afghanistan. Because of the conflict, most people are not aware of the incredible wildlife and natural beauty within the country’s borders.
In his conservation efforts, Dehgan visited the Pamir, Karakoram, Hindu Kush, and Tien Shian mountain ranges hoping to learn more about the wildlife that lived there and the best way to promote their conservation. He used camera traps and collected scat to figure out species were in the area.
He began by talking about the Pamir mountains. Despite the fact that this is a very dangerous region to be, Dehgan ventured in ready to work with locals and discover the wildlife there. Once, a member of his team asked if they could forgo checking the camera traps for the day because they were being bombed by the U.S. Army. However, it was worth it because Dehgan had the opportunity to work with locals and collect images as well as data on several unique species.
This included the Marco Polo sheep (Ovis ammon polii), enormous sheep that live in single-sex groups for most of the year. They only come together to mate and when they do, the males clash heads with one another for the ability to procreate. He was also able to find a markhor (Capra falconeri), which he prefers to call a “Twin-horn unicorn.” Markhor means snake eater, but the animal does not actually eat snakes. These animals are so valuable that a hunter once paid $110,000 to shoot one. Dehgan and his team were able to collect hair and genetic samples of musk deer (Moschus), which can be found in very steep areas of the Pamir mountains. These animals derive their name from the musk they produce which is often used in perfumes.
The area is known as Nuristan, the land of the enlightened, and is unique in that each valley has its own tradition, crafts, and even dialect. Dehgan and his team worked with people from the region and trained them to look for the specific animals
One of the most remarkable places Dehgan visited was Band-e Amir, which he described as looking like the grand canyon. The most unique natural aspect is a system of six lakes formed by the same process that creates stalactites and stalagmites. Above the lakes is an incredible mountain range and on top of the mountains are marine fossils because it used to be at the bottom of the sea. Here, Dehgan was able to use camera traps to collect images of ibexes (Capra ibex), Persian leopards (Panthera pardus saxicolor), and poachers. Poaching would eventually become one of Dehgan’s key focuses. Dehgan and his team also discovered Asiatic wild asses and assumed the presence of Asiatic leopards after finding their skins in the nearby villages.
Dehgan discovered that there was a massive trade in wildlife driven by the U.S. military. Skins of snow leopards and Persian leopards could be found all over Afghanistan as a part of illegal wildlife trade and other wildlife like Saker Falcons could be sold for up to $1 million.
As a result, Dehgan started a program around wildlife trafficking. A major part of his effort took place on Chicken Street, a busy shopping area where illegal animal skins could frequently be found. Dehgan worked closely with U.S. Military police, training them on how to identify furs.
Dehgan also worked with Afghani airport employees on how to inspect baggage for illegal furs. This resulted in the shut down of nearly all illegal fur trade, which Dehgan said was one of his biggest successes. In fact, one day while in Afghanistan, Dehgan received word that a fur trader wished to speak with him. Assuming they were angry at him for reducing their business Dehgan said that he actually feared for his life. However, it turned out that the fur trader simply wanted to be trained to identify illegal furs because they too wanted to protect Afghanistan’s wildlife.
Dehgan explained that Afghanistan was one of the easiest places he ever did conservation. This is because 80 percent of the human population is dependent on natural resources and thus when the wildlife fails, they fail. Because of this, they are eager to help aid in promoting conservation efforts.
Additionally, Dehgan was able to create the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Afghanistan Program which
Ultimately, his conservation work not only helped wildlife, but supported democracy by empowering, working with and training local communities.
By Anna Gotskind