- The Washington Times - Friday, January 15, 2010

The hunt is still on for Osama bin Laden. But the large-billed reed warbler?


What’s deemed as “the world’s least known bird species” is alive and well, and happily living in Afghanistan, discovered by an astonished group of scientists who found the small flier flitting around the rugged Wakhan Corridor of the Pamir Mountains of northeastern Afghanistan.

The reed warbler is a rare bird, indeed. Sleek, palm-sized and olive brown, the species was first cataloged in India 142 years ago; another was not spotted until 2002, this time in Thailand.

An unlikely warbler bonanza has taken off in war-torn Afghanistan, a phenomenon that ultimately could indicate that the troubled nation could one day become the must-see spot for ecotourists or adventurers.

An international team of eight ornithologists and other researchers from the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) announced Thursday that they had found at least 20 of the birds, deeming it “a watershed moment.”

But a mysterious one.

“Practically nothing is known about this species, so this discovery of the breeding area represents a flood of new information on the large-billed reed warbler,” said Colin Poole, executive director of WCS’ Asia Program.

“This new knowledge of the bird also indicates that the Wakhan Corridor still holds biological secrets,” he said, adding that the researchers verified their find after almost two years of field observations, comparisons with the few surviving museum specimens and DNA sequencing.

The discovery of the rare bird was accidental. WCS conservationist Robert Timmons was wandering along the Pamir River in 2008, surveying the local fauna when his ear was attracted to a distinctive bird song, emanating from a little, greenish bird with a long bill. Mr. Timmons recorded the song, and intrigued, returned with other curious researchers to the area a year later.

The bird had friends.

An eager flock of reed warblers assembled almost immediately after the recorded bird call was replayed within their earshot. Armed with delicate mist nets, the team was able to snare and identify 20 of the species, extracting a few feather samples before releasing their tiny captives. The team published preliminary findings in BirdingASIA, an academic journal.

And while difficult guerrilla wars continue elsewhere in Afghanistan, the WCS, which is headquartered in the Bronx Zoo, continues to make unobtrusive conservation studies in the nation, the first such efforts in more than three decades.

With support from the U.S. Agency for International Development and the government of Afghanistan, the WCS in 2008 mapped out Band-e-Amir, or “Commander’s Dam” - Afghanistan’s first national park, which is a striking showcase for six brilliant, blue high-mountain lakes and dramatic rocky scenery.

Afghanistan also plays host to large mammal species, including Marco Polo sheep, brown bears, ibex, lynx, wolves and the elusive snow leopard. There is an uncommon amount of wildlife to see, raising the possibility that Afghanistan could one day be the next big stop for hardy tourists, despite political instability and ongoing military or tribal conflicts.

“Tourism is a major vector for economic development. The estimated annual tourist revenue is between $4 [billion] and $7 billion in U.S. dollars,” says a 2007 national development strategy published by the Afghanistan Ministry of Information and Culture.

“Tourism must be developed at a steady pace while paying due attention to the security and culture. Defining and implementing a reasonable, realistic and voluntarist policy for tourism is one of the main priorities of the Ministry.”

Some realities remain, however.

“Anti-personnel mines and unexploded ordnance constitute a major challenge for the development of the tourism sector. Strategic public awareness and cooperation with local populations will help diminish real risks and psychological factors,” the strategy said.

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