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One of the famed lakes of Band-i Amir, Afghanistan's only national park. The park, located in the mountains of Bamiyan province, attracts between 7,000 to 8,000 visitors on weekend days in the summer, according to park officials.

One of the famed lakes of Band-i Amir, Afghanistan's only national park. The park, located in the mountains of Bamiyan province, attracts between 7,000 to 8,000 visitors on weekend days in the summer, according to park officials. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

One of the famed lakes of Band-i Amir, Afghanistan's only national park. The park, located in the mountains of Bamiyan province, attracts between 7,000 to 8,000 visitors on weekend days in the summer, according to park officials.

One of the famed lakes of Band-i Amir, Afghanistan's only national park. The park, located in the mountains of Bamiyan province, attracts between 7,000 to 8,000 visitors on weekend days in the summer, according to park officials. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

Paddleboats at Band-i Amir National Park, in north-central Afghanistan. On summer days, Afghans flock to the boat launch to get out onto the turquoise waters of the park's famed mountain lakes.

Paddleboats at Band-i Amir National Park, in north-central Afghanistan. On summer days, Afghans flock to the boat launch to get out onto the turquoise waters of the park's famed mountain lakes. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

Band-i Amir, Afghanistan's only national park, lies high in the Hindu Kush mountains of Bamiyan province. Rare species such as ibex and wolves roam the park???s 222 square miles and a group of 34 rangers work to prevent poaching and illegal harvest of hay and wood within the park boundaries.

Band-i Amir, Afghanistan's only national park, lies high in the Hindu Kush mountains of Bamiyan province. Rare species such as ibex and wolves roam the park???s 222 square miles and a group of 34 rangers work to prevent poaching and illegal harvest of hay and wood within the park boundaries. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

Visitors paddle on one of Band-i Amir National Park's famed mountain lakes in November. Band-i Amir is Afghanistan's only national park and officials there are working to balance conservation needs with those of villagers who have lived within park boundaries for generations.

Visitors paddle on one of Band-i Amir National Park's famed mountain lakes in November. Band-i Amir is Afghanistan's only national park and officials there are working to balance conservation needs with those of villagers who have lived within park boundaries for generations. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

Snow blankets the scrub land near the entrance of Afghanistan's only national park, Band-i Amir, in November. Few visit the park in winter, as deep snows blanket the rust red mesas and the famed mountain lakes freeze over.

Snow blankets the scrub land near the entrance of Afghanistan's only national park, Band-i Amir, in November. Few visit the park in winter, as deep snows blanket the rust red mesas and the famed mountain lakes freeze over. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

A park ranger walks near the headquarters of Band-i Amir, Afghanistan's first national park. Rangers must not only battle poachers but also must try to strike a balance between conservation goals and the needs of villagers who have lived in what is now the park for generations.

A park ranger walks near the headquarters of Band-i Amir, Afghanistan's first national park. Rangers must not only battle poachers but also must try to strike a balance between conservation goals and the needs of villagers who have lived in what is now the park for generations. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

Rust red mesas tower over the main boat launch at Afghanistan's only national park, Band-i Amir, in Bamyan province.

Rust red mesas tower over the main boat launch at Afghanistan's only national park, Band-i Amir, in Bamyan province. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

''The main problem is with the people who still live here,'' says Band-i Amir National Park caretaker Ali Yawar in describing his struggles to balance conservation needs with the villagers who live within the boundaries of Afghanistan's only national park.

''The main problem is with the people who still live here,'' says Band-i Amir National Park caretaker Ali Yawar in describing his struggles to balance conservation needs with the villagers who live within the boundaries of Afghanistan's only national park. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

''People want to cooperate with the government on the national park but the government needs to reimburse people for their property,'' says Sayed Hasan Hussein, 40, who lives within the boundaries of Band-i Amir, Afghanistan's only national park. Like many villagers, he thinks the government needs to do a better job of looking after their needs while protecting the park.

''People want to cooperate with the government on the national park but the government needs to reimburse people for their property,'' says Sayed Hasan Hussein, 40, who lives within the boundaries of Band-i Amir, Afghanistan's only national park. Like many villagers, he thinks the government needs to do a better job of looking after their needs while protecting the park. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

Ibex skulls at ranger headquarters of Band-i Amir National Park, in Bamiyan province, Afghanistan, represent one of several rare creatures that roams the 222 square miles of Afghanistan's only national park.

Ibex skulls at ranger headquarters of Band-i Amir National Park, in Bamiyan province, Afghanistan, represent one of several rare creatures that roams the 222 square miles of Afghanistan's only national park. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

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.

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. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

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.

druzin.heath@stripes.com Twitter: @Druzin_Stripes


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