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Afghanistan Declares Its First National Park - 23 April 2009

Source: Environment News Service (ENS)

KABUL, Afghanistan, April 23, 2009 (ENS) - In celebration of Earth Day, Afghanistan's National Environment Protection Agency Wednesday announced the establishment of Band-e-Amir as the country's first national park.

High in the Hindu Kush mountains of central Afghanistan, Band-e-Amir is a series of six deep blue lakes separated by natural dams made of travertine, a mineral deposit. Travertine systems are found in only a few places in the world - all are major international tourist attractions.

The national park covers 56,000 hectares (215 square miles) of land in central Bamyan Province near the Bamyan Valley, where the 1,500-year-old giant Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban once stood.

The official designation as a national park affords legal protection to the lakes and surrounding landscape of Band-e-Amir, and will ensure sustainable environmental management for this area of great natural beauty.

Since 2006, the U.S. Agency for International Development has been working with the government of Afghanistan and local communities surrounding Band-e-Amir to establish the national park.

USAID provided key funding that led to the park's creation, including support of the Wildlife Conservation Society, based at New York's Bronx Zoo, to conduct preliminary wildlife surveys, identify and delineate the park's boundaries, and work with local communities and the provincial government.

"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 Dr. Steven Sanderson, president and chief executive 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," he said.

The Wildlife Conservation Society 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. USAID also advised the government on the development of the legal framework for establishing protected areas.

Band-e-Amir had been a destination for travelers since the 1950s, with a peak visitation in the 1970s. 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 the country.

Though much of the park's wildlife has been lost, recent surveys indicate that it still contains a species of wild goat known as ibex, and urial, a type of wild sheep, along with wolves, foxes, smaller mammals and fish.

The Afghan snow finch has been seen in the park. This species is believed to be the only bird found exclusively in Afghanistan.

Snow leopards were once found in the area but they have disappeared due to hunting in the early 1980s.

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

The Wildlife Conservation Society says creation of the national park will provide the international recognition essential to helping develop Band-e-Amir as an international tourist destination, and assist it in obtaining UNESCO World Heritage Status, which would provide additional protection.

The park designation also sets the groundwork to create an Afghan Protected Area System that could include the biodiverse 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.

Wildlife Conservation Society helped the 13 villages lying within the park establish this committee, which provides local input to 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.

Recently, tourism has begun to increase, says USAID. In accordance with the park's environmental management plan, local entrepreneurs are building small shops, restaurants, and hotels to serve the growing number of tourists. A campground is also planned.

USAID says these improvements are expected to attract more Afghan and international tourists over the coming years, contributing to Afghanistan's economic growth in an environmentally responsible manner.