By Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi
MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan, September 22, 2006 (ENS) - Attaullah recently shot one of the world's rarest big cats - and he's proud of it.
He tracked down and killed the elusive snow leopard in the high Pamir mountains of northeastern Afghanistan back in July, and now he is looking for a buyer not only for its valuable pelt, but also for bones, claws and other body parts that will fetch a premium as ingredients for Chinese traditional medicine.
While some conservationists have estimated that there might be a couple of hundred snow leopards left here in the mountains of Badakhshan, where a narrow sliver of Afghan territory is flanked by Tajikistan, China and Pakistan, the country's own Environment Protection Department reckons there are only about 50 left. An accurate count is impossible because apart from being an endangered species, the cat's habitat is up near the snowline and it is rarely seen.
"Going after a snow leopard is the ultimate for any hunter," said Ataullah, 44, who like many Afghans uses just one name. "Sometimes we won't find one for three months. It depends on the luck of the individual."
A five-year ban on hunting imposed by Afghan president Hamed Karzai is still in force, but is difficult to enforce and widely ignored.
"If the hunting of certain rare animals like the snow leopard, the Marco Polo sheep, brown bear and musk deer is not banned, they will rapidly be wiped out," warned Dost Mohammad Amin, the deputy head of the Afghan Environment Protection Department.
An estimated 3,500 to 7,000 snow leopards are left in the wild.
Amin believes the president's moratorium has had some success, and his agency now wants to make the ban on killing certain species permanent by setting up nature reserves.
People in the mountains have always shot or trapped the occasional snow leopard for preying on their livestock. But specialised hunters like Attaullah are a different breed - and now seem to be spurred on by the booming market in exotic animal parts for use in traditional Oriental medicine. Attaullah will get 100 dollars for these "medicinal" items, plus 900 US dollars for the thick pelt.
With that kind of income on offer, hunters are prepared to invest time, money and effort in securing a kill.
"Sometimes we'll wait a month to go after a good specimen, because valuable animals are scarce and it's very hard to hunt them," said Attaullah. "We start out in July when the roads become clear of snow. We have special hunting rifles that we've bought in Pakistan, and we wait for the animal we want."
Conservationist Amin reported optimistically that on a recent trip to the capital Kabul, he had only seen two or three faded snow leopard skins on sale, when previously they were a common sight.
However, the insider Attaullah revealed that the reason is that the trade is getting more organised, "In the past, we used to sell the leopard pelts in Kabul, but now we don't have to take them there because so many merchants come to our district from Pakistan to buy them up."
Given its low population numbers, this kind of increased pressure could drive the snow leopard out of existence in Afghanistan. The cat is under threat across its range from the Himalayas through Central Asia to Mongolia.
Attaullah has a compelling justification for hunting - in a country devastated by war and poverty, he and many like him need to support a family.
"I caught a snow leopard in the Pamirs this summer and I'll earn 1,000 dollars - I'd never make that amount by doing anything else," he said.
When he is not stalking big cats, Attaullah goes after wild sheep and anything else he can catch to put food on the table.
In the Seventies, the Marco Polo sheep, another rare Pamir species and the world's largest sheep, was a favourite target for rich foreigners on hunting expeditions - the massive horns were a prized trophy. These days, Attaullah sees it as several delicious meals and 200 dollars in cash for the hide.
He dismisses calls for a ban, saying, "This hunting has been going on for thousands of years. If the population of these animals were in decline, there wouldn't be any left. It is just an excuse by powerful men who want to stop us hunting so that they can keep them [game animals] for themselves."
With vast tracts of inaccessible mountain wilderness in his province, Badakhshan's governor Abdul Majid says he does not have the resources to curb poaching.
"For one thing, these animals don't have specific habitats because they range across the mountains of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and China," he said. "Nor do we have the capacity to monitor the territory. The areas where these animals live are… covered in snow for nine months of the year. We have only one district police department with 40 men to cover these areas, so how can we control them?"
Abdul Majid said he believed most of the hunters were not Afghans, and came from other countries. The elusive snow leopard may slip away from the Afghan mountains altogether as hunters get wise to the illicit trade in animal parts.
Amin hopes a new initiative by Afghanistan, Tajikistan and China to create a cross-border game reserve called the Pamir International Peace Park could help save vulnerable species.
"A conference in Dushanbe held in mid-July decided that all mountain regions where rare animals live in these three countries will be declared a Peace Park, and no one will be allowed to enter it," he explained, adding that all three countries would provide rangers to police the reserve.
Elsewhere in Afghanistan, the environmental agency plans to establish national game reserves once it completes a survey of how many of the 119 major species of animal recorded 30 years ago are still there, and identifies areas where they survive in sustainable numbers.
Attaullah is unhappy with all this talk of conservation and restrictive rules. He said, "These animals are wild and free. One day they're in one place, the next day they're somewhere else. If they feel confined, they'll become depressed and may leave the area altogether, or they may pine and die, which is much worse than being hunted."
As well as hunting, Karzai's ban also covered the poaching of fish. Amin said poaching has declined by a massive 85 per cent since the order was issued.
But that statistic would not mean anything to Gul Murad, who is in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif selling fish he has caught illegally in the Amu Darya river.
He happily explained his fishing technique, "We throw hand grenades into the river. It's very easy. The little fish die, too, but it doesn't affect the overall number of fish in the river.
"If we don't catch them, someone else will."
For many species of wildlife, that argument may prove all too true.