Office of Law Enforcement
Pacific Region/Pacific Southwest Region



January/February 2010

What Not to Buy in Afghanistan

Snow Leopard
Snow leopard. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

One of the most amazing characteristics of wildlife is that it is literally everywhere. Wildlife doesn’t recognize boundaries, border crossings, travel restrictions, or political unrest. However, it is sometimes easy to forget about the omnipresence of wildlife when a location is better known for another reason.

Afghanistan is a case in point.  Most Americans know that this nation and its people have tragically endured decades of conflict.  But the country also represents a diverse natural habitat featuring a variety of animals and plants.

Afghanistan is home to nine species of wild cats! These include the Snow leopard, leopard, lynx, caracal, Leopard cat, Jungle cat, Wild cat, Pallas’s cat, and Sand cat. You can also find the world’s largest species of wild sheep, the Marco Polo sheep, also called argali, whose horns can span over six feet from tip to tip.

Unfortunately, one little known fact about Afghanistan’s wildlife is that it is being exploited. Many wildlife products are being sold in local street markets or bazaars throughout Afghanistan. For example, there have been reports of numerous Snow leopard skins and fur coats offered for sale as well as Marco Polo argali horns, exotic butterflies and seal skin rugs.

Part of the problem is that U.S. citizens and others temporarily in Afghanistan sometimes end up buying these products as souvenirs for family and friends back in the states.

Most of these U.S. citizens don’t realize that shipping or bringing those wildlife products to the United States is against U.S. law, and in some cases also Afghanistan law. Buying a fur coat, a seal skin rug, or even a butterfly specimen for a loved one may seem like a good idea but it can result in criminal violations if it is a protected species. This is the last thing someone returning from Afghanistan would want to deal with.

Countries protect native wildlife under national laws as well as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species(CITES). CITES is a comprehensive wildlife treaty, signed by 175 nations, which monitors and regulates international trade in wildlife and wildlife products and helps ensure sustainable trade. The U.S. and Afghanistan have both signed the convention. The U.S. incorporates the CITES through its enforcement of the Endangered Species Act and Afghanistan does so through its conservation laws.

The U.S. laws related to this issue are the Endangered Species Act and the Lacey Act.

The Endangered Species Act prohibits the purchase, possession, and transport of any listed species, with limited exceptions. Of the Afghanistan wildlife species mentioned above, the following are listed as endangered or threatened under U.S. law: Marco Polo argali, Snow leopard, leopard, Leopard cat, and  Sand cat. The penalty for violating the Endangered Species Act could result in fines as high as $100,000 and imprisonment of up to a year.

The Lacey Act prohibits anyone from purchasing, receiving, transporting or importing any wildlife taken, transported, or sold in violation of any law, treaty or regulation of the U.S. or foreign law. This means that a violation of Afghanistan law concerning wildlife that is then brought into the United States can be prosecuted in U.S. courts under the Lacey Act.

Drawing of a Marco Polo Sheep
Drawing of a Marco Polo argali. Public Domain photo

Afghanistan recently announced new laws to protect some of its wildlife species which include a list of over 30 species classified as either endangered or threatened by Afghanistan's National Environment Protection Agency. The list includes the Snow leopard and Marco Polo argali. So, if a U.S. citizen buys a wildlife product made from a species listed under Afghanistan law and transports or imports it into the U.S., they could be subject to penalty under U.S. law through the Lacey Act.  Penalties for a violation of the Lacey Act can result in fines of up to $250,000 and imprisonment of 5 or more years.

Collection of cat skins
Skins from various species of wild cats
. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

When people purchase a wildlife item such as a fur coat, they may think, “Well it’s already dead so I can’t do anything about it now, why not buy it?” However, they must realize that by purchasing it, they are driving the demand up and the seller will try to replace that item of inventory because it sold well. This may lead to more exploitation of rare and precious wildlife.

Afghanistan is projected to have a snow leopard population of less than 200 according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). With these low numbers, the loss of a single snow leopard could have a significant impact on their survival.

The U.S. has been involved in educational programs raising awareness about the wildlife trade in Afghanistan. The U.S. embassy in Afghanistan, the Department of Defense, the State Department, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Wildlife Conservation Society have started to raise awareness by holding trainings for U.S. citizens on how to recognize endangered and threatened animal furs. They are doing these trainings both in Afghanistan and in the U.S. Click here and here for more details.

Outdoor Afghan Market Place
Outdoor Afghanistan market. Public Domain photo

The Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement is involved in military educational programs as well. The Service provides training to military customs officers about wildlife laws as well as typical smuggling methods and species identification. In the Pacific Region, this training takes place at the San Diego Naval Station and in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The Service also works with Customs and Border Protection Inspectors throughout the country, educating them on wildlife import/export requirements.

Raising awareness is the key to stopping the trade in protected species. People need to understand how their actions can harm conservation efforts as well as the legal ramifications they may face by contributing to the trade.

Please purchase souvenirs with care in Afghanistan and anywhere else your travels may take you. For some tips on purchasing souvenirs made from wildlife and plant products, please click here.

To contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about this piece or to report a violation you have witnessed, please go to and click on the “contact us” link at the top of the page.


Last updated: March 24, 2011

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