Over the last 10 years, Afghanistan has been making an impressive commitment to environmental conservation. The government of Afghanistan is increasingly aware that protecting its natural resources and safeguarding its wild places is not a luxury, but an essential element of reconstruction and sustainable prosperity. As a result, the National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) has worked hard to ensure that key natural areas receive the protection they need for a healthy future.
While the creation of national parks has been a dream in Afghanistan for decades, it wasn’t until 2009 that the country finally established its first-ever national park in the spectacular region of the Band-e-Amir lakes. The initiative was successful, bringing attention, tourists, and jobs to Band-e-Amir’s communities while simultaneously establishing important safeguards for the area’s fragile natural habitat. On the heels of this success, five years later, in 2014, the country created its second national park in a remote but stunning corner of northeastern Afghanistan.
Home to soaring mountains, grassy alpine plains, and unique wildlife, Wakhan National Park has been called “one of the last truly wild places on the planet” by the director-general of NEPA. For a glimpse of this exceptional area that few people in the world get to see, here are four fascinating facts about Afghanistan’s newest national park.
The park is huge.
Wakhan National Park covers a remarkable 1 million hectares, or 4,200 square miles. That’s roughly 25 percent larger than Yellowstone National Park in the USA. Naturally, given this impressive size, the geography and landscapes found in Wakhan National Park are very diverse, ranging from jagged mountain peaks to rough meadows, and from dry, desert-like areas to the headwaters of the Amu Darya River.
To make the most of the park’s vast area, the long-term management plan is to divide the park into different zones for different uses. For example, some zones will be exclusive reserves for wildlife, while others will permit multiple uses, including grazing.
The park is extremely remote.
Wakhan National Park is located in the area of Afghanistan known as the Wakhan Corridor, a narrow strip of land that protrudes from Afghanistan’s northeastern tip and is bordered by several other countries, including China and Tajikistan. The meeting place of the Pamir Mountains and the Hindu Kush range, the district is a very isolated, cold, and high-altitude mountain valley bordered on both sides by formidable mountain peaks.
Accessing the area is no easy feat. An overland trip from Kabul takes a week, and it can actually be easier to enter the park via Tajikistan, its northern neighbor. As a consequence, it’s not entirely surprising that Wakhan National Park receives just 100 to 300 international visitors a year.
The park is home to a diverse range of wildlife.
Although Wakhan’s isolation might be a barrier for human visitors and inhabitants, it’s a major advantage for the many different species of animals that inhabit the region. According to a deputy director of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) – a US non-profit that has worked with NEPA on the creation and management of both of Afghanistan’s national parks – an “astonishingly diverse” array of wildlife calls Wakhan National Park home.
Nine species of wild cats can be found in the park, which is (believe it or not) the same number found in all of sub-Saharan Africa. In addition to these feral felines, the park’s residents include wolves, brown bears, stone martens, red foxes, and ibex, as well as the unique Marco Polo sheep. The largest wild sheep in the world, it sports horns than stretch nearly six feet from tip to tip.
In terms of wildlife protection, one of Wakhan’s biggest success stories to date has been the elusive snow leopard. Listed as an endangered species by the World Wildlife Fund, the snow leopard population has declined in recent years as a result of trophy hunters targeting them for their beautiful pelts as well as from farmers killing them in order to protect their livestock. However, the creation of Wakhan National Park, as well as regional conservation programs dating back to 2009, have brought the snow leopard’s numbers back up to around 140, which WCS experts say is a sustainable number.
The park protects people as well as nature.
It’s not just animals who are being helped by the creation of Wakhan National Park. The Wakhan District’s resident population of about 15,000 people, most of whom are ethnic Wakhi or Kyrgyz, are also seeing benefits.
Under an agreement with the government of Afghanistan, the local population will serve as co-managers of the park, together with the Afghan government. They will be able to continue to use the land for their livelihood (many Wakhan locals survive by herding livestock), and can also get jobs as rangers, managers, and other park personnel.