- The Washington Times - Monday, January 6, 2003

LONDON Western aid workers and soldiers are pushing the snow leopard, one of the world's rarest cats, toward extinction by buying pelts for $1,500 each in Afghanistan.
The pelts, used to make fur coats and rugs, are sold in shops used by foreigners in Kabul, the Afghan capital, and Faizabad in the northeast, despite an international ban on the trade.
The U.N. Environment Program, which is seeking to preserve the endangered animal, says many of the buyers are aid workers, who have moved to Afghanistan in large numbers since the end of the war with the Taliban in December 2001.
The United Nations also accuses soldiers from the international peacekeeping force of purchasing the leopard skins and says it is "appalled" that Westerners are buying the pelts of an endangered species.
"The pelts are being bought by the growing number of Westerners in Afghanistan, mostly soldiers and aid workers," said one official from the U.N. Environment Program.
"It is a disturbing development and will encourage poachers to kill even more snow leopards."
The official added that the killing of snow leopards appeared to have increased significantly since the fall of the Taliban regime, which restricted foreign access to Afghanistan, although precise figures were impossible to establish.
A spokesman for the International Snow Leopard Trust said there was also evidence that the snow leopard pelts were being bought by gangs who sold them for profit in the West.
There are estimated to be fewer than 100 snow leopards left in Afghanistan and about 3,500 throughout their Central Asian habitat.
Lucy Morgan Edwards, a British reporter based in Kabul, said that there were many different pelts on sale in Chicken Street, the capital's main shopping area for Westerners.
"They are not being bought by the locals because they are too expensive but by soldiers and the aid workers. The aid workers are much more careful with their money, perhaps because they are not very well paid. They tend to spend more time haggling over prices than the soldiers."
The spending habits of Western soldiers in Afghanistan, whose official title is the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, are well-known, and much appreciated, by the locals, who refer to them as the "International Shopping Around Force."

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