Hunting during migration is a significant threat to birds relying on the Central Asian flyway for their journeys between wintering and breeding grounds. Cranes in particular suffer losses when passing across certain areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, where hunting them for sport is a traditional pastime. The loss of adult and young birds during migration through these areas is thought to have been the leading factor behind the decline and extinction of the Central Asian population of Siberian cranes Leucogeranus leucogeranus. Although crane hunting and offtake levels have been studied in Pakistan, very little is known about crane hunting in Afghanistan.
The National Environmental Protection Agency and the Wildlife Conservation Society carried out a joint assessment of crane hunting in Kapisa and Parwan provinces of Afghanistan in April 2015, 2016 and 2017. The surveys concluded that the demoiselle crane Anthropoides virgo and Eurasian crane Grus grus are the main objects of hunting activity between the last week of March and mid April, but many species of waterfowl and waders are also taken, such as 120 pelicans (Pelecanus spp.) in spring 2017. Nowadays hunters no longer use traditional methods such as sling-propelled rocks, and use firearms only. They shoot cranes opportunistically or after luring them with tame cranes, or sometimes after netting them. In contrast to what has been described in Pakistan the vast majority of cranes currently taken in Afghanistan are hunted for meat, a few for the pet trade, and some to be used as lures to attract conspecifics. Most of the cranes are taken in spring and only a few in autumn, which is the high season for black-bellied sandgrouse Pterocles orientalis and lark (Melanocorypha spp.) harvesting. Numbers of harvested cranes in spring may vary between years. In Barik Aab, Parwan Province, known to be a hotspot for crane hunting, we estimated that 15–20 hunting camps harvested 1,600–2,000 cranes during spring 2015, but less than half that level in 2016 and even fewer in 2017 because, according to hunters, good weather conditions allowed birds to pass the Hindu Kush without stopping. However, even in 2017 the 16 hunting camps operating in the area succeeded in capturing 200–300 cranes for the pet trade.
Crane hunting is a lucrative activity. A crane is sold for meat for USD 30–40, a much higher price than mutton/beef meat (USD 5–7 kg−1) because of its alleged aphrodisiac properties. A live couple of demoiselle cranes can fetch USD 2,500 and a couple of Eurasian cranes up to USD 4,000, prices that only the wealthiest can afford. This hunting is so profitable that it brings hunters into fierce competition, and in the last few years it is alleged that at least seven have died in hunting disputes. The modernization of hunting techniques, weakening of cultural traditions of restraint, and attractiveness of high profits raise concerns that kill rates of cranes in Afghanistan no longer remain below the recruitment rate and may jeopardize the survival of populations migrating through the country.
In spite of the formal opposition of the National Environmental Protection Agency to the hunting or capture of protected bird species, people continue to hunt all species of birds, and merchants to buy and sell them for meat or the pet trade. Curbing illegal bird hunting in Kapisa and Parwan provinces is a challenging task because of insufficient support from law enforcement authorities, the widespread availability of firearms and ammunition, and the growing demand for crane meat and pet birds from wealthy customers. In general the impact of subsistence hunting is likely to become increasingly acute as human populations grow and habitat continues to be lost. However, in the case of cranes in Afghanistan the demand comes mainly from wealthy customers who do not consume the meat for subsistence. In such circumstances a determined government commitment against a handful of powerful people generating the demand and sometimes organizing the supply chain, listing the Eurasian and demoiselle cranes as legally protected, implementing public awareness campaigns, and educating the wealthiest could prove efficient actions to decrease hunting pressure on cranes and other migratory bird species in Afghanistan.