Country's First National Park an Oasis in War-Torn Afghanistan

band e amir afghanistan national park photo
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The blue lakes and mineral-deposit formations of Band-e-Amir have been protected as Afghanistan's first national park. Photo by Carl Montgomery via Flickr.

Ever since getting a fleeting glimpse of northern Afghanistan on a 2004 trip to Central Asia, I've envied those 1960s and '70s travelers on the "hippie trail" who trekked through the country's starkly beautiful landscapes without a care in the world, back when the Bamyan Buddhas were still standing and ancient city walls weren't yet littered with land mines. Those tourism glory days aren't likely to return anytime soon, but Afghan officials hope a new national park--the country's first--might draw some adventurous tourists back to their beleaguered country.Located near the relatively peaceful Bamyan Valley, where the 1,500-year-old Buddha statues stood before they were destroyed by the Taliban, Band-e-Amir National Park has plenty going for it--six beautiful blue mountain lakes, rare natural travertine dams, and wildlife, including ibex, wolves, foxes, and the Afghan snow finch.

The region, one of Afghanistan's best-known natural areas, was proposed as a national park as early as the 1960s, but government instability and, later, war, prevented this from happening until now. Though foreign visitors have largely stayed away in recent decades, Afghan visitors have continued to come to the mountain lakes, which are threatened by erosion, unregulated grazing, and the local practice of fishing with explosives such as hand grenades. The area has already lost the last of its snow leopards and many of its other animal inhabitants, according to the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, which helped develop a management plan for the park and train local rangers.

Environmentalists hope that making Band-e-Amir a natural park will help protect it from further damage. With this designation, the region can, they say, more easily obtain World Heritage Status and could eventually become part of a protected area spanning the boundaries of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and Tajikistan.

Though the country's Parliament still has to ratify the legislation for it to become permanent, an executive order creating the park was signed in late April by the head of Afghanistan's National Environmental Protection Agency. U.S. Deputy Ambassador Frank Ricciardone expressed the high hopes for this high mountain region at the signing ceremony when he said that with this park, "You will draw visitors not only from all across Afghanistan, but all across the region and the world to visit you and your beautiful country." Via: "Afghans get first national park," BBC News

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