The subtitle says it all: Conservation efforts in war zones are the real subjects of this intriguing, detailed, frequently unnerving account, one in which snow leopards play a relatively minor role.
Dehgan, co-founder and CEO of Conservation X Labs, “an innovation and technology startup focused on ending human-induced extinction,” tells his unique story of conservation efforts in postwar Afghanistan. His job, which began there in 2006 under the aegis of the Wildlife Conservation Society, was to examine ecosystems that had been devastated by war, determine what flora and fauna (if any) remained, and set up new national parks along with the legal structures required to maintain them. As the author makes abundantly clear, the physical conditions were challenging and security was lacking, but, as he reminds us frequently, the people he met along the way were friendly, charming, and helpful. However, while some sightings are reported, animals are largely absent in the narrative. Dehgan’s previous experiences working in Russia and Madagascar prepared him well for this job, and he clearly demonstrates the necessary organizational know-how. The author vividly describes the rugged lands he and his crew encountered, but maps would have been a big help to those unfamiliar with the geography. The U.S. Agency for International Development (where the author previously served as chief scientist) comes in for sharp criticism: Dehgan writes that in Afghanistan, USAID had little interest in protecting wildlife or in using science as a tool but a great deal of interest in receiving written reports on the money being spent. The more money spent, the author writes, the happier the USAID.
Nature lovers’ expectations may be unfulfilled, but Dehgan’s lessons provide a sort of textbook on the frustrations and complexities of working on conservation in a place where science runs into the snarls of politics and diplomacy—and often loses.