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Afghanistan Declares Its First National Park

WCS photo by Alex Dehgan One of Afghanistan’s best-known natural areas–a spectacular series of six deep blue lakes separated by natural dams made of travertine, a mineral deposit–has been declared the country’s first national park. The park is near the Bamyan Valley, where the 1,500-year-old giant Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban once stood. “Travertine...

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WCS photo by Alex Dehgan

One of Afghanistan’s best-known natural areas–a spectacular series of six deep blue lakes separated by natural dams made of travertine, a mineral deposit–has been declared the country’s first national park.

The park is near the Bamyan Valley, where the 1,500-year-old giant Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban once stood.

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“Travertine systems are found in only a few places throughout the world, virtually all of which are on the UNESCO World Heritage list and are major international tourist attractions,” the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society said in a news release announcing the new national park. WCS worked with the Afghanistan government and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to establish Band-e-Amir national park.

WCS scientist Chris Shank with two Afghan park guards

WCS photo by Chris Shank

USAID provided key funding that led to the park’s creation, including support of WCS to conduct preliminary wildlife surveys, identify and delineate the park’s boundaries, and work with local communities and the provincial government, WCS said in a news statement. WCS also developed the park’s management plan, helped the government hire and train local rangers, and provided assistance to the Afghan Government to design the laws enabling the park to be created.

“At its core, Band-e-Amir is an Afghan initiative supported by the international community. It is a park created for Afghans, by Afghans, for the new Afghanistan,” said Steven E. Sanderson, president and CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Society. “Band-e-Amir will be Afghanistan’s first national park and sets the precedent for a future national park system.”

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WCS photo by Chris Shank

Band-e-Amir had been a destination for travelers since the 1950s, with a peak visitation in the 1970s, WCS added. Tourism was almost entirely absent during the war years between 1979-2001. “Today, Band-e-Amir is visited every year by thousands of Afghan tourists and religious pilgrims as well as many foreigners currently living and working in-country.”

Though much of the park’s wildlife has been lost, WCS said, recent surveys indicate that it still contains ibex (a species of wild goat) and urial (a type of wild sheep) along with wolves, foxes, smaller mammals and fish, and various bird species including the Afghan snow finch, which is believed to be the only bird found exclusively in Afghanistan. “Snow leopards were once found in the area but vanished due to hunting in the early 1980s.”

Fragile Travertine Dams

The llakes are under growing threat from pollution and other human-caused degradation to the fragile travertine dams.

Creating the national park will provide international recognition essential to helping develop Band-e-Amir as an international tourist destination, and assist it in obtaining World Heritage status, which would provide additional protection, according to WCS. “It also sets the groundwork to create an Afghan Protected Area System that could include the wildlife-rich transboundary area in the Pamirs shared by Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and Tajikistan.”

The new park will be managed by Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Agency, the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock, and the Band-e-Amir Protected Area Committee.

WCS helped the 13 villages lying within the park establish this committee, which provides local input into all management decisions. “The park will provide employment, tourism-derived revenue, and ensure that local communities play a key role in protecting this world class landscape,” WCS said.

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One of the travertine dams that make up the series of six lakes. Note the person standing on top of the dam.

WCS photo by Chris Shank

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