By Jack Knudson
Conservationist Alex Dehgan set out for Afghanistan in 2006 with an ambitious goal: to help establish what would eventually become the country’s first national park, Band-e Amir National Park. During his time there, Dehgan discovered a rich history, stunning environments and a host of animal species worth saving.
Before traveling to Afghanistan, Dehgan questioned why certain species go extinct while others survive after environmental change. While studying endangered lemur populations in Madagascar for his doctoral thesis, Dehgan realized that the key to this question is behavioral adaptability.
There are different degrees to which evolution can constrain a species. The length of lemurs’ legs, for example, can make moving through trees easier, but make moving on the ground harder. Lemurs are not apt, then, to overcome the challenges imposed by deforestation due to the structure of their body. The capacity for behavioral change can therefore predict the order in which species suffer extinction.
Throughout the rest of his career, Dehgan has aspired to spread conservation efforts around the world. Dehgan explains that conservation not only preserves biodiversity within habitats, but is also rooted in culture. Animal species have formed a crucial part of Afghanistan’s identity, and Dehgan saw this for himself in more ways than one.
Centuries ago, the Eurasian trade route, known as the Silk Road, cut through the landscapes of what is now Afghanistan. A blend of habitats make Afghanistan a hub for biodiversity, as depicted in Dehgan’s 2019 book, “The Snow Leopard Project: And Other Adventures in Warzone Conservation.”
Numerous environments, including forests, grasslands, deserts, and mountains converge at this biological and cultural crossroads. These environments are home to a wide array of fauna, such as the snow leopard, with a tail nearly as long as the rest of its body, and the Marco Polo sheep, named after the historical Venetian merchant who spotted the species on his travels.
Dehgan observed how the residents of Afghanistan, including local ethnic groups like the Wakhi and the Kyrgyz who reside in the mountainous Pamir region, cherished animals in their everyday lives.
“The animals are in the names of the towns, they’re decorated on paintings in the houses, we found petroglyphs – they’re over 2,000 years old – with these animals on it…so I think this idea of identity and tying wildlife to the people’s identity is really important,” Dehgan said.
Those who wish to integrate conservation into cultures must be wary of what Dehgan calls “drop-in conservation.” This is when outsiders attempt to force conservation into a certain region, leaving local people discouraged since they do not see the efforts as their own.
“That’s where I think really spending the time with the community and creating champions in the community to lead conservation efforts further sort of tied it to the identity,” Dehgan said.
Dehgan is now taking the next steps in conservation through Conservation X Labs, a company he co-founded. Conservation X Labs supports national parks through the development of innovative technology used to replace items that harm the environment.
One problem Dehgan points to lies within the clothing we wear. A shirt composed of synthetic fibers contains plastic, made as an oil or petroleum product, and the synthetic fibers in these shirts also shed microplastics, which we inadvertently ingest at an alarming rate according to Dehgan.
Conservation X Labs has identified natural solutions that bypass environmental and health-related consequences of the clothes we wear. Spoiled milk, agricultural waste, and even mycelium, a structural component of fungi, can be used to create safer clothing.
The utility of bioproducts pertains to the food industry as well. According to Dehgan, shrimp can be made from red algae, retaining the same taste without causing bycatch – marine species that are unintentionally caught through fishing.
The hope of Dehgan and Conservation X Labs is to transform previously established systems for the better.
“How do we prepare ourselves and build essentially new economics for individuals? So we do that through open innovation. We build tech that empowers conservationists through molecular science, machine learning, and machine vision to allow us to take existing tools that conservationists use and make them smarter,” Dehgan said.
Dehgan argues that health issues, such as the current COVID-19 pandemic, often arise from our misuse of nature. The Nipah virus, a bat-borne virus prevalent in Southeast Asia, is yet another indication of this. The virus has spread as a result of deforestation, which drove infected bats to take up residence in trees over pig pens. These pigs are then infected and are able to transmit the virus to humans through close contact or bodily fluids.
Dehgan warns that the misuse of nature is affecting us all. Microplastics contribute to the transmission of environmental toxins and viruses, as does small-scale mining that generates harmful mercury emissions.
“When we start disturbing those ecological communities,” Dehgan said, “we disturb the basis that sustains human life.”
The next steps, Dehgan believes, should be aimed towards investing in sustainable solutions like solar, wind, wave and other alternative energies.
“Just as humans have created these problems, we have the means to solve them,” Dehgan said.
Band-e Amir and the people who work tirelessly to protect it show us that the hope for a better environment endures. Conservation in Afghanistan has seen tremendous progress following the establishment of Band-e Amir as a national park. Three other sites have since joined the list of “protected areas” specified on the Wildlife Conservation Society website: Wakhan National Park in 2014, Shah Foladi Protected Area in 2015, and Kol-e- Hashmat Khan wetland National Park in 2017.
However, following the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in 2021, assisting Afghan conservationists has become increasingly difficult. While Dehgan admits it won’t be easy to continue conservation there, he maintains the belief that its biodiversity is worth protecting, regardless of setbacks.
Science diplomacy will always be a necessary process in supporting global security and keeping conservation alive. In Dehgan’s experience, the environment can be the foundation from which countries navigate difficult relationships. Previous communication with the Soviet Union and Iran was possible in large part because of scientists.
“These are all rich opportunities, and part of it is understanding that for reasons of national security, for reasons of economic growth, for reasons of the best interest of a country, it is in their interest to cooperate on the environment, because generally, environmental problems are not going to stop at the borders as we know them,” Dehgan said.
Ohio University’s Kennedy Lecture Series featured Dr. Alex Dehgan, CEO and co-founder of Conservation X Labs, on March 1st. You can find a livestream of the event at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ztZl06sqoBY