Band-i Amir: Afghanistan’s lone postcard destination
The turquoise waters of a mountain lake at Band-i Amir, Afghanistan's only national park, in Bamiyan province. Provincial officials and local villagers alike hope the park can once again become a tourist destination and bring much-needed economic development to the impoverished area.
BAND-I AMIR NATIONAL PARK, Afghanistan — In Afghanistan, where conservation has taken a backseat to war for 35 years, a “national park” designation is largely conceptual: People acknowledge the place is beautiful and deserves preservation, but the details remain fuzzy.
Slowly, though, the concept of preservation is turning into action in the country’s only national park, Bamiyan province’s Band-i Amir, with its azure, cliff-ringed lakes, sandstone mesas, and — complicating conservation efforts — several hundred resident herders whose presence predates the park.
“There is not another place like it in Afghanistan, so it should be protected,” park caretaker Ali Yawar said.
Band-i Amir is Afghanistan’s postcard destination, with its web of pristine high mountain lakes surrounded by mile after mile of high desert peaks. Visitors are unlikely to see much wildlife, but rare Central Asian beasts, such as ibex and wolves wander the park’svast, rugged terrain, while falcons and eagles patrol the skies. On weekend days in the summer, officials say some 7,000 to 8,000 visitors flock to the park, most heading for the main lakeside dock to picnic, swim, or rent swan-shaped paddleboats to ply the waters. But those numbers fall to just one or two visitors per day in the harsh winter months.
Religious pilgrims, too, come to visit a shrine on a lake especially holy for Shiite Muslims.
Protecting all of this, as well as taking care of guests, falls on Yawar and his handful of employees.
Yawar says he is understaffed, with just 18 rangers and six motorcycles to patrol about 222 square miles of parkland, much of it roadless. He’s getting help now, though, with the Wildlife Conservation Society now employing an additional 16 rangers focusing on anti-poaching efforts and helping to train and equip the local rangers.
Poaching is still an issue, as is illegal trapping of falcons, which can fetch thousands of dollars in the Middle East, said Hamidullah Shibi, a liaison officer for the Wildlife Conservation Society who has been working in the park since 2010.
“The main issue is that people don’t know the value of wildlife,” he said. “We work with (local) teachers and students on education and we think we are having success.”
The main tension in the park, though, is with people. Not far from the park’s visitor center, under the rusty cliffs that frame the park’s famed lakes, is the village of Jarokashan, where a handful of hardy herders have lived for generations. As the government tries to protect the park, it’s running into conflict with the villagers, who want to build on their family land and graze their sheep in the area, as they have for decades.
“We have got problems — the main problem is with the people who still live here and graze their animals in the park,” Yawar said.
Villagers say the park has brought both opportunity but also restrictions — such as limited grazing rights and bans on collecting wood and hay — and they want compensation for what they have lost.
“People want to cooperate with the government on the national park but the government needs to re-imburse people for their property,” said Sayed Hasan Hussein, 40, a third generation Jarokashan resident.
What both villagers and conservationists agree on, though, is that the park is good for the area and attracting tourists is good for the park.
Three decades and three wars ago, Afghanistan was a haven for Hippie Trail tourists and Bamiyan province was a major stop. But that was a different era and in the interim the Soviets invaded, Afghans fought themselves, the Taliban took over, the Americans knocked them out and the Taliban kept fighting. Few have come to visit in the past three decades.
It will be awhile before Band-i Amir is a major destination for international tourists. For starters, there’s still a war raging in the country, though Bamiyan province has been largely insulated from the violence. Even getting to safe areas, like Band-i Amir, is tough. Travelers from Kabul must brave a road partly controlled by the Taliban or board a Soviet-era Antonov propeller plane for the 35-minute flight from Kabul.
But visitors are starting to trickle in — Band-i Amir is a favored domestic destination for the army of foreign aid workers and journalists who live in Kabul — and when violence does eventually decrease in the country, locals and park officials alike hope it can once again be a destination and an economic boost for the area.
“It needs to be protected because it can help the country economically,” said Yawar, the park caretaker.
Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.