Ecoregions

Ecoregions of Afghanistan

September 4, 2012, 2:36 am
Content Cover Image

Chichal, near Asadabad in eastern Afghanistan, within the Baluchistan Xeric Woodlands ecoregion. Source: moneebafghan/flickr

WWF identifies twelve ecoregions the exist entirely or in part in Afghanistan:

  1. Registan-North Pakistan sandy desert
  2. Baluchistan xeric woodlands
  3. Sulaiman Range alpine meadows
  4. Central Afghan Mountains xeric woodlands
  5. East Afghan montane conifer forests
  6. Ghorat-Hazarajat alpine meadow
  7. Afghan Mountains semi-desert
  8. Paropamisus xeric woodlands
  9. Badkhiz-Karabil semi-desert
  10. Northwestern Himalayan alpine shrub and meadows
  11. Hindu Kush alpine meadow
  12. Karakoram-West Tibetan Plateau alpine steppe

 

Registan-North Pakistan sandy desert

This ecoregion covers 107,100 square miles of Southern Asia: Southern Afghanistan into Pakistan and Iran.

It includes:

  • Zohary’s Iranian steppes of Artemisietea herbae-albae iranica east of the Kuh-e Gamsidzai and the Kuh-e Palangan; and

  • the sandy desert and thorn scrub forest of the Thar-Indus bioregion in Pakistan,

In Afghanistan, the semi-desert communities are dominated by Calligonum-Aristida Haloxylon salicornicum and other chernopods.

 

 

 

 

Baluchistan xeric woodlands

This Baluchistan Xeric Woodlands ecoregion spans from the Las Bela Valley and the high barren plateau of Baluchistan from southwest Pakistan to eastern Afghanistan. It extends to the north, cutting through the Trans-Indus Plains of the North-West Frontier Province and through Peshawar, Kohat, and Bannu, ending at the border of Eastern Hindu Kush and the Himalayan Mountains. A maze of ranges, hills, and mountains lie within and around this ecoregion. These include the Sulaiman, Kirthar, Safed Koh, and Pub ranges, Torghar and Kaliphat Waziristan hills, and the Tobakakar, Takhatu, and Zarghun mountains with elevations from 1,000 to 3,000 meters (m). Large passes such as Quetta and Khyber cut through these ranges.

The juniper forest of north central Baluchistan is believed to be the most extensive remaining in the world and is home to the distinctive and highly threatened Baluchistan bear and straight-horned markhor. Some individual Juniperus macropoda have been in existence for 2,500 years. Tiger (Panthera tigris virgata), Asiatic cheetah (Aciononyx jubartus venaticus), and Asiatic wild ass (Equus hermionus) have all been extirpated from this ecoregion within the past 400 years.

Deforestation for fuel, fodder, charcoal, building materials, commercial logging, and food by natives and the 3 million refugees in the bordering areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan is one of the main threats to the area. The assignment of large portions of land as rangelands, where some pastures support livestock populations that are three times greater than their carrying capacity, has caused a serious overgrazing problem that led to biodiversity degradation, soil erosion, and desertification. The construction of dams and barrages on the Indus and Kabul rivers to control floods and store water for irrigation has benefited the wintering waterfowl by expanding the amount of wetland habitat. However, it has interfered with the movement of migratory fish species, severely affecting the habitat of the Indus River dolphin and other fish fauna.

 

Sulaiman Range alpine meadows

This ecoregion traverses the side valleys of Chitral and Swat in the north and cuts through parts of the ranges of Safed Koh and Waziristan. It then descends to the high-elevation areas of Chialtan, Toba Kakar, and Takht-I-Suleiman ranges of southwestern Pakistan and northeastern Afghanistan. Most of the area has average elevation of 1,600-3,500 meters (m). This ecoregion is characterized by extreme aridity and severe temperature extremes.

The Chilghoza forests of Sulaiman Ranges are at risk from local timber extraction. In the early 1990s, close to 40,000 trees were harvested annually. WWF-Pakistan has worked with the local communities on implementing a conservation agreement with alternative economic incentives for forest landowners.

Local gypsy tribes catch the young cubs of brown bears and leopards for village shows and baiting. In 1993, a survey by WWF-Pakistan revealed that 205 bear cubs were captured by local villagers for display. The adult bears are also hunted by sport hunters and locals for their medicinal value. Another significant threat is poaching of wild animals to protect domestic livestock. Habitat loss caused by high fragmentation is the main threat for the avifauna of this ecoregion. High competition for fodder with domestic animals has caused a severe decline of wild ungulates. The heavy human settlement, possession of firearms, and disruption of the food chain caused by scarcity of ungulates have also led carnivores, especially leopards, to near extinction. Unless preventive measures are taken, extirpation is likely.

There is severe depletion of subterranean aquifers, caused by the installation of tube wells and increased irrigation. The groundwater is not being replenished, and the Kharezes originally used for crop irrigation are mostly now dry and inoperative. In the case of the Chilghoza, because it grows so slowly there has never been a single attempt to produce nursery stock. The Pakistan Forestry Department is trying to introduce alien species such as Pinus halipensis instead.

Overgrazing by goats prevents any natural regeneration and is a more serious threat to the Chilghoza than timber felling.

 

 

Central Afghan Mountains xeric woodlands

This ecoregion covers  53,800 square miles of Afghanistan's central mountains

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

East Afghan montane conifer forests

The East Afghan Montane Coniferous Forest spans from Eastern Hindu Kush at Jalalbad Valley, Kunar Range, and Ghazni Province in the north. In the south, it extends to lower Kohistan of Indus, Safed Koh, Takhat-i-Suleiman, and Koh-i-Maran ranges and Quetta Pass of western Pakistan.

Two types of forests make up this ecoregion because of the influence of the monsoon. Areas between 2,100 and 2,500 m receive less monsoon rain and have dry coniferous species. As one moves to higher elevations (2,500-3,100 m) where there is a continuous rain from the monsoon, a temperate deciduous species mixes with the conifers. At 3,100-3,300 m the precipitation decreases and the cedar forest is replaced by junipers (Juniperus seravschanica).

One of the main threats of this area is logging of deodar, fir, blue pine, and oak to fulfill the ever-increasing demand for timber, fuel, and fodder. The abundant and dense forests of this ecoregion have been replaced by construction sites for industrial developments.

Freshwater lakes and wetlands have been severely affected by irrigation channels. This has caused low water levels during the dry months, which disturb breeding birds.

There are also introduced amphibian species such as a toad (Bufo virdis) and frogs of Rana spp. in the wetlands of northeast Afghanistan.

The rivers and lakes have been polluted by domestic sewage, agricultural effluents, industrial waste, and garbage dumps. The use of chemical pesticides in irrigation channels has contributed to the decrease in the number of mammals such as jackals. Although the red fox is still widespread, it is ruthlessly hunted for its valuable pelt.

Ghorat-Hazarajat alpine meadow

This ecoregions covers 25,700 square miles of in a mountainous region of central Afghanistan.

The boundaries were drawn according to Freitag’s (1971) map of natural vegetation. They correspond to the region classified as thornbush meadows and alpine grasslands.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Afghan Mountains semi-desert

This ecoregion covers 5,300 square miles of small interior valleys in the northern slope of the Afghan mountains.

Semi-desert communities dominated by Amygdatus from Freitag’s (1971) natural vegetation map were used for the ecoregion boundaries.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paropamisus xeric woodlands

this ecoregion covers 35,800 square miles of northern Afghanistan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Badkhiz-Karabil semi-desert

The Badghyz and Karabil region lies within hilly plateaus north of Paropamiz, the northernmost Afghan range of the Hindukush. The region is bordered by Tedzhen (Harirud) river separating Turkmenistan from Iran in the west, Afghanistan in the south and Kugitang mountains in the east. The area between Tedzhen and Murghab rivers is known as Badghyz, the portion further eastward, as Karabil.

Areas of Badghyz are covered by a unique xeric savanna ecosystem, dominated by wild pistachio trees (many say it looks like the African savanna). This area contains key populations of Asian wild ass (kulan), goitered gazelle (dzheiran), striped hyena, and (in low numbers) leopard. Other rare or endangered animal species are wild sheep, honey badger, marbled polecat, Indian porcupine, black vulture, and a large number of rare rodents, birds, and reptiles. Spectacular salt depressions with basaltic rock buttes harbor a number of halophytic plants. Badghyz lies on one of the ancient Silk Road routes, but the area was largely abandoned and desertified in the Middle Ages.

Northwestern Himalayan alpine shrub and meadows

This ecoregion represents the alpine scrub and meadows between 3,300 and 3,600 meters (m) in the northwestern reaches of the Himalayan Range. The ecoregion extends across northwestern India and northern Pakistan, mostly in the Vale of Kashmir and associated mountains, into eastern Afghanistan.

The remote Northwestern Himalayan Alpine Shrub and Meadows ecoregion is some of the most intact and undisturbed habitat for the snow leopard, the Himalayan high-altitude carnivore that hunts large mountain ungulates such as ibex, markhor, blue sheep, and tahr. However, the snow leopard is not the lone predator here, for the ecoregion harbors the Tibetan wolf and large avian predators such as the lammergeier and golden eagle, which soar high above the mountain peaks searching for colonial marmots.

For a short time in late spring and summer, the meadows become resplendent with a colorful tapestry of delphiniums, gentians, poppies, roseroots, louseworts, anemones, and asters, to name but a few. No less bright are the flowers of the rhododendrons that characterize the alpine scrub habitat closer to the treeline. Within this species-rich landscape are hotspots of endemism, created by the varied topography, which results in very localized climatic variations, promoting the evolution of specialized plant communities.

Hindu Kush alpine meadow

This ecoregion, generally above 3000 meters of elevation, covers 10,900 square miles in the high eastern mountains of Afghanistan. The boundaries are derived from the alpine meadows and nival zone in Freitag’s (1971) map of natural vegetation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Karakoram-West Tibetan Plateau alpine steppe

This ecoregion makes up a majority of the Karakoram high mountain region to the west of the Himalayas in Kashmir. It includes snow and glaciers of some of the world's highest mountains (such as K2) as well as the lower-elevation alpine, sub-alpine, and interdispersed coniferous vegetation. The predominant mountain ranges are the Karakoram Range, Ladakh Range, Chang Chenmo Range (China), and Deosai Mountains.

On the alpine slopes or in sheltered ravines, Salix denticulata, Mertensia tibetica, Potentilla desertorum, Juniperus polycarpus, Polygonum viviparum, Berberis pachyacantha, Rosa webbiana, and Spiraea lycoides dominate.

The Karakoram-West Tibetan Plateau Alpine Steppe contains some of the highest densities of ungulates in the region, including the endangered Marco Polo sheep. The alpine vegetation supports numerous mountain sheep and goats, which in turn provide a substantial prey base for the endangered snow leopard. A majority of this ecoregion is prim habitat for the snow leopard and, like its ungulate prey, this large predator often comes into conflict with the region's domestic animals that use the same rangelands. A resolution to this conflict will help ensure habitat for the region's native flora and fauna.

Trophy hunting for markhor, ibex, snow leopard, and game birds (such as falcons) is prevalent in this ecoregion and has decimated their populations. Ibex and snow leopard face extinction in this ecoregion because of hunting pressures. There is a demand from the Chinese medicinal trade for snow leopard bones to use as substitutes for tiger bone. The furs from snow leopards have been commonly used for coats, and furs have been seen on sale throughout China and Taiwan.

Livestock rely on rangelands for forage, and overgrazing of natural vegetation is a common. Domestic grazing competes directly with native ungulates for precious resources, and grazing is a greater threat than hunting to this ecoregion's native species. In elevations up to about 1,500 m, the pastures are grazed throughout the entire year. The higher elevations, between 1,500 and 3,300 m, are grazed only in the summer.

Context

Ecoregions are areas that:

[1] share a large majority of their species and ecological dynamics;
[2] share similar environmental conditions; and,
[3] interact ecologically in ways that are critical for their long-term persistence.

Scientists at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), have established a classification system that divides the world in 867 terrestrial ecoregions, 426 freshwater ecoregions and 229 marine ecoregions that reflect the distribution of a broad range of fauna and flora across the entire Earth.

See also: Biological diversity in the mountains of Central Asia

References

  • Atamuradov, H., G.N. Fet, V. Fet, R. Valdez, and W. Feldman. 1999. Biodiversity, genetic diversity, and projected areas in Turkmenistan. Journal of Sustainable Forestry 9(1-2):73-88.
  • Fet, V., and K.I. Atamuradov, editors. 1994. Biogeography and ecology of Turkmenistan. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht. ISBN: 0792327381
  • Freitag, H. 1971. Studies in the natural vegetation of Afghanistan. Pages 89-106 in P.H. Davis, Harper, and I.C. Hedge, editors, Plant life of South-West Asia. The Botanical Society of Edinburgh, Edinburgh.
  • Kamelin, R.V., editor. 1990. Pistachio in Badghyz. Nauka, Leningrad, (in Russian).
  • Lukarevskii, V.S. 1995. Leopard. Pages 148-157 in V.V. Kucheruk, editor. Mlekopitayuschie Turkmenistana (Mammals of Turkmenistan). Ashgabat, Ylym.
  • Freitag, H. 1971. Studies in the Natural Vegetation of Afghanistan. Pages 89-106 in P.H. Davis, Harper, and I.C. Hedge, editors. Plant Life of Southwest Asia. The Botanical Society of Edinburgh, Edinburgh.
Glossary

Citation

Fund, W. (2012). Ecoregions of Afghanistan. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/177116