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Afghanistan bets on peace with first national park

Compiled by Tipitaka Network newsdesk, Sunday, May 3, 2009

A unique cascade of turquoise lakes nestled in bleak mountains near the heart of Afghanistan was touted as a national park in the 1970s, long before three decades of war drove the tourists away.

On April 22, Afghanistan declared Band-e-Amir its first conservation area, hoping nature-lovers will return. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) applauded Afghanistan's National Environment Protection Agency (NEPA), which made the announcement for the establishment of the country's first internationally recognized national park.

The park, known as Band-e-Amir, will protect one of Afghanistan's best-known natural areas: the spectacular series of six deep blue lakes separated by natural dams made of travertine, a mineral deposit. Travertine systems are found in only a few places throughout the world, virtually all of which are on the UNESCO World Heritage list and are major international tourist attractions.

For decades, the area deteriorated along with so much else in a country consumed by war. The last of Band-e-Amir's magnificent snow leopards was hunted down some time in the 1980s while Soviet troops were battling mujahideen guerrillas.

The park is near the Bamiyan Valley, where the 1,500-year-old giant Buddha statues once stood. The spectacular ancient giant Buddha statues were blown up by the Taliban in 2001.

But today the area is far from any fighting and Afghan tourists have begun to return. Authorities hope foreigners who made Afghanistan a stop on the "hippie trail" in the 1970s will one day come back too.

The chain of lakes are a bone-jarring day's drive from Kabul over dirt roads that are currently considered unsafe for foreigners. There is only a dirt airstrip at the nearest town.

But the giant natural dams, formed from slow-growing deposits of travertine stone that hold back each pool of startlingly blue water are a unique natural treasure.

"There is nothing else in the world that looks like that," said Peter Smallwood, Afghanistan Country Director for the WCS, which has helped set up the park. "There are some travertine dams that are bigger but nothing so vertically sheer. It is so thin and tall it looks almost unreal."

Though much of the park's wildlife has been lost, recent surveys indicate that it still contains ibex (a species of wild goat) and urial (a type of wild sheep) along with wolves, foxes, smaller mammals and fish, and various bird species.

Wetlands at the edge of the lake are a haven for migrating birds in an arid zone, boasting a rare species which lives only in the area, the Afghan snowfinch. Although the Buddhas are gone, the nearby Bamiyan valley is still breathtakingly beautiful and scattered with other historic sights.

The lakes are under growing threat from pollution and other human-caused degradation to the fragile travertine dams.

Creating the national park will provide international recognition essential to helping develop Band-e-Amir as an international tourist destination, and assist it in obtaining World Heritage Status, which would provide additional protection. It also sets the groundwork to create an Afghan Protected Area System that could include the wildlife-rich transboundary area in the Pamirs shared by Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and Tajikistan.

Local entrepreneurs are hoping that official national park status will bring a steadier stream of Afghan tourists to their doors in the summer months.

"We are very poor people. If this opens a gate for the rich people to come visit, at very least we will have a chance to see what they look like," said Sayid Abdul Jafar, a villager from inside the park said with a grin.

The new park will be managed by Afghanistan's National Environmental Protection Agency, the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock, and the Band-e-Amir Protected Area Committee. WCS helped the 13 villages lying within the park establish this Committee, which provides local input into all management decisions. The park will provide employment, tourism-derived revenue, and ensure that local communities play a key role in protecting this world class landscape.

source: http://uk.reuters.com/article/lifestyleMolt/idUKTRE53L0W620090422
source: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/04/090422085148.htm

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