Editor’s Note: This week, Afghanistan opened its first official national park. It’s called Band-e-Amir and was officially announced by the country’s National Environmental Protection Agency. This designation affords legal protection to the lakes and surrounding landscape – about 230 square-miles – and ensures its sustainable environmental management. The land is mostly dry grassland and desert highland habitat with six lakes. Estimates suggest approximately 5,000 people live in the 14 villages that make up the region. The Wildlife Conservation Society has been working with local organizations to set up the management of the Band-e-Amir.
Dr. Peter D. Smallwood
Country Director, Wildlife Conservation Society-Afghanistan
“You’re working WHERE?” I’m running the Wildlife Conservation Society’s project in Afghanistan.
“But… is there any wildlife LEFT in Afghanistan?”
This is a fairly typical start to conversations I have on my short trips outside of Afghanistan. Even here in Kabul, when I meet up with other NGO workers, they always ask: is there any wildlife left? The answer is yes.
Afghanistan is roughly the size of Texas, but is much more diverse than one would expect for a landlocked country of this size, sandwiched in between Iran and Pakistan. Typically, one thinks of the deserts of Kandahar and Helmand when thinking of Afghanistan, but there’s much more to this country: high mountains and alpine valleys in the north east are home to Marco Polo Sheep (like the American Bighorn sheep, only bigger), Ibex (wild goat), and the illusive, legendary snow leopards hunt them. Great Brown bears roam those mountains too.
There are beautiful forests in the steep eastern mountains: evergreen forests, some with pistachio and old walnut trees mixed in. Markhor goats and Asiatic black bear live here, along with Persian leopards and several other cat and fox species. There is a lot of wildlife left. And much of it is in trouble. It’s the usual trouble: habitat destruction, overhunting, overgrazing of the grasslands, crowding out the wildlife.
The next, obvious question: does this work really make sense in Afghanistan? Even if they are too polite to ask it out loud, I can tell that they’re thinking it. It’s a fair question. After all, the majority of our funding comes from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) –that’s money from the US treasury. Your tax dollars. A national park seems nice enough, but it seems like a luxury the country can’t afford right now. Does it really make sense to be spending your tax dollars on this?
It does make sense, for reasons that go far beyond conservation. One of the things Afghanistan needs is economic development: legal, sustainable economic development. Tourism is a great opportunity. The villagers of Band-e-Amir are quite poor, but they recognize the potential of tourism. WCS, together with other organizations, has been assisting local entrepreneurs in building small shops, restaurants and hotels. Mostly, we’ve been providing guidance: locating the facilities in a good place, out of the environmentally sensitive zones and flood zones, just around hill to preserve the natural appeal of the best photo shots, etc. We have deliberately kept our material assistance small: when the local entrepreneurs invest their own sweat equity, you know you’re on the right track.
In the short term, the local people will benefit from Afghan tourists. But that will provide them with the step to reach up to more lucrative international tourism. That’s not just the dream of a starry-eyed conservationist; a European firm was in Bamyan last year, trying to get permission to build a small, well-appointed hotel at Band-e-Amir. On Earth Day, Deputy Ambassador Francis Ricciardone spoke eloquently of the potential for international tourism, in Bamyan and several other areas. Afghanistan was once a destination for international tourist, and it can be again.
The National Park helps Afghanistan in another way: one of the things this country needs is a stronger sense of national identity. Band-e-Amir will help. It’s already a tourist destination among Afghans. The growth of internal tourism to Band-e-Amir means more of all the different peoples of Afghanistan coming to the same place, to enjoy this great natural beauty. Even for those Afghans who do not visit it, Band-e-Amir is so distinctive, Afghans will easily recognize pictures of it as “our” national park. These symbols are important here, because the effort to strengthen national unity needs all the help it can get.
Finally, national parks are great way to conserve a country’s biodiversity, and help it to more sustainable, community-based management of their natural resources. It really is a way to help the Afghans to do well by doing good.
It may sound almost silly at first, but it’s true: I am in Afghanistan, helping them conserve their wildlife. It is both an idealistic and a very pragmatic project, all at once. I’m fortunate to be a part of it.
To see photographs of the Band-e-Amir, check out this photo gallery.
Ayub Alavi , Protected Area Specialist at the Wildlife Conservation Society-Afghanistan contributed to this post.
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