Band-e-Amir: Afghanistan’s Hidden Wonderland

Ruqia is one of 120 people in Band-e-Amir national park who have a solar cooker that captures and focuses the rays of the sun to boil water. Photo: UNDP Afghanistan / Rob Few / 2015

Bamyan, August 2015 — The evidence was out there weeks before anyone even knew. On July 07, 2014, a small box hidden way out on the northern plateau – an open area of inhospitable hills and valleys in the Afghanistan’s central Bamyan province – clicked into life and snapped a photo of a Persian leopard – a species of wild cat long thought to be extinct in this area. 

Fifteen days later, on July 21, one of the park’s four female rangers collected the box, brought it back to the base camp in Band-e-Amir national park, and within hours, park staff knew their home was even more special than they already thought. 

Band-e-Amir and the surrounding area, is home to more wild cat species than the whole of Sub Saharan Africa. There are also birds, deer and other endangered animals. But they and the environment they live in are under threat from over grazing, tree felling, poaching and a surge in tourist numbers.

Highlights

  • Band-e-Amir, is home to more wildcat species than sub Saharan Africa, as well as other endangered animals.
  • Up to 5,000 tourists visit the park every day, which, at nearly 3,000 meters above sea level, is literally breathtaking.
  • To help the animals, WCS hired Afghanistan’s first-ever female rangers, who patrol the park, watch out for poachers and advise tourists.
  • WCS, with UNDP support, is working on a new five-year development plan allowing improved tourist facilities that blend in with the environment.

In high season, as many as 5,000 tourists can visit the park in a single day. They come for the astonishing natural beauty, which, at nearly 3,000 meters above sea level, is literally breathtaking, and for the relaxing and supposedly rejuvenating properties of the park’s six lakes, whose travertine deposits colour the waters a rich, otherworldly turquoise.

Then there are the other, less welcome, visitors: poachers, cattle ranchers and people who come with pickup trucks and leave with bundles of freshly chopped wood. Together with the residents of the park’s 14 villages, these visitors are placing an unsustainable burden on the area’s natural resources.

“If we weren’t working here… this place would be a mess by now,” says the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)’s David Bradfield, who oversees several projects in the park.

Originally from South Africa, David fell in love with Band-e-Amir on his first visit seven years ago. Since then, he has been working with WCS to reverse the park’s environmental damage. With support from UNDP and the Global Environment Facility’s Small Grants Programme, David and his team of local experts work hand in hand with the residents of the park on interventions that address immediate needs but also the long-term future of Band-e-Amir and all of Afghanistan’s vulnerable areas of natural importance.

To help local residents, they have already distributed 500 fuel-efficient stoves, which more than halve the need for firewood, and provided solar cookers that concentrate the sun’s rays to heat water. To help the animals, they’ve hired Afghanistan’s first-ever female rangers, who patrol the park and watch out for poachers. These rangers also look after tourists and advise them not to litter, use soap or shampoo in the lakes, or start fires for barbecues.

For the next generation, WCS runs awareness raising programmes in local schools on the importance of national parks and how to protect them; for this one, WCS has established a Community Development Council that brings local people together to approve all projects, discuss how the park should be developed and unite in the face of outside threats.

“Last year we had someone try to come in and build a 500-bed hotel right above the shrine [a local spot of great spiritual significance],” explains David. They brought out a letter supposedly giving them permission and showed it at the monthly Community Development Council meeting. But we were able to present our five-year plan that said in black and white that this couldn’t be done.”

That particular project was stopped, but everyone knows there has to be a balance between development and conservation, people and nature. So WCS, with UNDP support, is working on a new five-year development plan allowing improved tourist facilities that blend in with the environment and also provide employment for local people. We are also working toward the establishment of an Afghan parks and wildlife authority that will be able to run and protect not just Band-e-Amir but all of Afghanistan’s national parks. 

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