Band-e-Amir: Amazing beauty, awesome challenges
The evidence was in an open area of inhospitable hills and valleys in the Afghanistan’s central Bamyan province. Hidden out on the northern plateau, a small box snapped a photo of a Persian leopard, a species of wild cat long thought to be extinct in this area.
Weeks later, 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 park staff knew their home was more special than they already thought.
- 5,000 people in Band-e-Amir benefited from projects in the park.
- 500 fuel-efficient stoves have more than halved the need for firewood.
- Solar cookers were distributed to 160 families.
Band-e-Amir and its extension, the Northern Plateau, is a rangeland of over 40,000 sq km, home to more wildcat 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.
Putting GPS devices around the leopards’ necks reveal that they wander hundreds of miles for food, as the animals they feed on have gradually disappeared.
In high season, as many as 5,000 tourists can visit the Band-e-Amir 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 color the waters a rich, otherworldly turquoise.
Then there are the other, less welcome visitors: poachers, cattle ranchers, and people who leave in pickup trucks 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 David Bradfield, who oversees several projects in the park.
The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has been working to reverse the park’s environmental damage. With support from UNDP and the Global Environment Facility biodiversity project, WCS and a 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 Afghanistan’s other 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 the Small Grants Programme, another UNDP and GEF initiative, provided 160 solar cookers per family that concentrate the sun’s rays to heat water and cook food. To improve community-led land management, they conducted trainings such as vegetable cultivation, seeds saving, watershed management and pastures management and distributed improved vegetable seeds.
In addition, 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 worked with Community Development Councils that bring local people together to approve all projects, discuss how the park should be developed and unite in the face of outside threats.
In 2015, for example, someone tried to build a 500-bed hotel right above a shrine. They showed a letter supposedly giving them permission at the monthly Community Development Council meeting, but the Council presented its five-year plan that said in black and white that it couldn’t be done.
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.
UNDP is 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 the country’s national parks.
In addition to Band-e-Amir, the Afghan government has recognised three more protected areas: Big Pamir Wildlife Reserve, Teggermansu Wildlife Reserve, and Wakhan Conservation. The Afghan government plans to mark ten percent of its entire land as protected areas by 2017.