A Persian leopard that was long thought to have been extinct in Afghanistan was recently seen on images from camera traps in the country's central highlands.

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Using camera trap surveys to collect data on the wildlife of Afghanistan’s Central Highlands, scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society have made a surprise discovery: a Persian leopard, thought to have been extirpated from the region. Photo credit: WCS Afghanistan Program

The Wildlife Conservation Society, or WCS, on Monday announced the sighting of the rare leopard. It noted that the camera trap images not only tell a story of the survival of the predator, but also highlight the continued threats to many species.

From the series of images released, wildlife experts saw proof of a big,adult leopard on the prowl around the camera trap's field of view. At one point, the cat came up to the camera to investigate it with its large canines exposed. The cameras also caught paochers in the area.

We are thrilled by these images and the story of survival that they tell, but we were sobered by the fact that the cameras also took photographs of local people walking past with guns, Peter Zahler, deputy director of WCS's Asia Program, said via a statement. Poaching is still a very real threat, and WCS is committed to helping the Afghan government and local communities protect these rare and beautiful animals.

The WCS has said that the government of Afghanistan has launched several initiatives to protect the country's wild places and its wildlife. The country's only national park, Band-e-Amir, was created in 2009. It is co-managed by local villagers and the government. A list of protected species has also been created to prevent the hunting of snow leopards, brown bears and other wildlife. There is also educational outreach taking place.

Dozens of other species such as lynx, wild cat, wolf, red fox and other predators were also caught on tape, surviving in the Hindu Kush highlands. Wildlife Conservation Society scientists and Afghan rangers have been conducting surveys this are over recent months, a press release stated.

To see such a varied array of wildlife after we have endured so much conflict gives us hope for Afghanistan's future, said Mostapha Zaher, the director general of Afghanistan's National Environmental Protection Agency via a press statement.

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An ibex triggers the infra-red beam of the camera trap as it runs uphill. Photo credit: WCS Afghanistan Program

Intact ecosystems represent a foundation for our country's reconstruction and development, Zaher added. This is also our heritage, our natural resources, our fauna and flora. It is incumbent upon all of us to conserve and protect our environment and hand it over to the next generation of the citizens of Afghanistan.

Wildlife scientists said camera traps can be a valuable research tool for conservationists working in remote wildlife areas, as the data can be used to provide population estimates for various species.

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A pair of poachers seem to follow an ibex that passed through less than half an hour before. Unsustainable hunting is a threat to many of Afghanistan’s wildlife. Photo credit: WCS Afghanistan Program

Ghani Ghuriani, the deputy minister of agriculture, irrigation and livestock, noted in a press release that the sight of leopards and lynxes in Afghanistan is an indication that the large cats are finding enough prey to feast on.

This means that the rangelands can still support ibex, urial, and other species, which is a good sign for both wildlife and the people of this region who also depend on these grasslands for grazing, Ghuriani said.