A New National Park Emerges in Afghanistan

By Mohammad Ibrahim Abrar | January 30, 2020

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Hamalayan snowcock in Bamyan’s Grand Conyon. Photo credit: WCS Afghanistan

The Bamyan Plateau amazes. An intact wilderness area covered by high-altitude grasslands, this remarkable natural area boasts scattered ancestral trees and spectacular deep gorges transecting the landscape. Last November, Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Agency and the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock declared it the nation’s fifth protected area.

The plateau provides vast natural resources — to the rare wildlife species that have evolved for millennia in this unique landscape, but also to the few indigenous people making their living out of the unforgiving and harsh habitat of the plateau. Millions more in the fertile lowlands of the Amu Darya River Basin benefit from this crucial catchment area in the central part of the Hindu Kush Mountain Range.

My local team convinced me two years ago that if I could spare one week of my life and accompany them to the remote Bamyan Plateau, I would see for myself the wonder of this breathtaking landscape.

As a project manager, I have been spending my days coordinating activities hundreds of kilometres away, occasionally visiting people upon request to discuss technical or administrative matters. Although I’d shown little previous interest in hiking or wilderness, my local team convinced me two years ago that if I could spare one week of my life and accompany them to the remote Bamyan Plateau, I would see for myself the wonder of this breathtaking landscape.

I will never forget my first visit. After walking for days, we reached Dar-e-Bozurk — the Grand Canyon — in Tabaqsar, a vast emptiness of gigantic and deep canyons, pristine rangeland, and rather intimidating dignified, old Juniper trees.

In these mysterious surroundings, we camped safely for several nights in beautiful valleys. We saw wildlife and flowers in areas that gave me each morning the impression of a rebirth of mankind.

As I journeyed back to civilization, it occurred to me that Dar-e-Bozurk could become an area as attractive to eco-tourists as other spectacular areas in the world, such as the Grand Canyon in the United States. Many urbanized Afghans from the nation’s growing middle class would value escaping the pollution and overcrowded cities for a couple of days.

Years of civil conflict and the collapse of the rule of law in rural areas led people from outside of Plateau to visit for sport hunting with automatic rifles, resulting in wildlife numbers plummeting.

But Bamyan Plateau is not everywhere empty and pristine. We also visited local indigenous people who live where water is accessible. Most of them are very poor and rarely have the opportunity to access services provided by the government or NGOs, especially during winter when heavy snows block all routes and paths. Then, horses and donkeys provide the only means of transportation between close settlements.

After generations in this harsh environment with few modern facilities, people have developed extraordinary survival capacities. Yet women and children die each year due to being cut off from any health facilities during five months of winter. Livestock provide the chief source of food and livelihoods. Very young boys and girls tend sheep and goats, and as a result cannot enroll in school because of their shepherding duties and family support commitments.

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Members of Rangeland Management Association in Bamyan Plateau. Photo credit: WCS Afghanistan

Set against these challenges, maintaining a healthy environment is crucial to the survival of people on the Bamyan Plateau — and to the continuation of their traditional nomadism across the breathtaking landscape.

Local people recall of large herds of urial and ibex, which in the past were very easy to hunt even with primitive weapons. But years of civil conflict and the collapse of the rule of law in rural areas led people from outside of Plateau to visit in growing numbers. They brought automatic rifles with them for sport hunting, resulting in wildlife numbers plummeting.

Efforts to conserve key wildlife species with local communities have resulted in a growing awareness of the importance of wildlife, conservation, and sustainable use of natural resources.

Other concerns loomed. Community members witnessed with alarm the huge number of livestock brought in by outsiders to graze the north and northwest parts of the plateau. Coteries of poachers entered from the northern provinces. And while a new road planned across the plateau could facilitate access to education, economic development and health care, this new infrastructure also posed threats to the environment.

In a survey I conducted in the summer of 2018, people expressed a massive (greater than 85 percent) interest at having Bamyan Plateau designated as a protected area and agreed on a collaborative management approach with the government for the conservation of the plateau and its natural resources.

When funding has been available, the WCS Afghanistan program has supported local rangers — including 18 that were provided with training and sufficient patrol equipment to monitor the area and communicate with law enforcement and other influential people to control poaching and environmental degradation. According to area residents, wildlife sightings have increased in recent years following these efforts.

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has initiated preliminary efforts to conserve key wildlife species with local people. That work has resulted in a growing awareness by local communities of the importance of wildlife, conservation, and sustainable use of natural resources.

It is our hope that this new conservation focus will help to conserve the Bamyan Plateau and its remarkable natural features for future generations of Afghans.

Mohammad Ibrahim Abrar has worked for 13 years in Afghanistan’s central highlands, most recently managing and implementing the field projects in Band-e-Amir National Park and Bamyan Plateau for WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society). In a new role as WCS Field Projects Manager, he coordinates WCS’s field work in Bamyan and Badakshan provinces.

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WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.

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