Spotlight on the National Parks of Afghanistan

National parks protect some of the world’s most important wildlife habitats and rare species that dwell in them. In this article, we look at a selection of protected areas in Afghanistan and endemic wildlife such as snow leopards, jackals, wolves, and bears.

Wakhan National Park

Encompassing alpine grasslands, soaring mountains, and a unique selection of wildlife, Wakhan National Park is located in northeastern Afghanistan. The region is inhabited by several tribes who seek to preserve its culture and traditional way of life.

Wakhan National Park
Image courtesy USAID | Flickr

Recognized as one of the last truly wild regions in the world by Prince Mostapha Zaher, the director general of Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Agency, Wakhan National Park lies in a narrow corner of Afghanistan and is bordered by Tajikistan to the north, Pakistan to the south, and China to the east.

The Amu Darya River, which begins in Wakhan National Park, is also the point where the Pamir and Hindu Kush Mountains converge.

The wildlife in Wakhan National Park are incredibly diverse and encompass an array of snow leopards, lynx, wolves, brown bears, ibex, and red foxes, as well as the elusive Pallas’s cat. Wakhan National Park is also home to the famous Marco Polo sheep, which are characterized by their distinctive long horns that stretch almost 2 meters from tip to tip.

Ab-i Istada National Waterfowl and Flamingo Sanctuary

Ab-i Istada, which translates as “standing water,” is located in the Nawa District, Ghazni Province, Afghanistan. This endorheic salt lake lies within a large depression in the southern foothills of the Hindu Kush that was formed by the Chaman Fault System.

With a surface area of around 130 square kilometers, Ab-i Istada is relatively shallow, at around 3.7 meters deep. The lake encompasses two small islands near its southeastern shore: Kuchney ghundai and Loya ghundai.

The Nahara and Sardeh Rivers also drain into Ab-i Istada from the northeast. When the lake reaches a high level, the overflow drains into the Lora River, a tributary of the Arghistan River.

Outside of visits from nomads from Kandahar who pass through the region each summer, the area has remained unpopulated until relatively recently. At the start of the 21st century, the Tarakai tribe began settling near the lake, establishing eight villages within a 10-kilometer region housing a total population of approximately 5,000. Today, local communities engage in a variety of activities such as agriculture; timber collection; and the trapping of peregrine and saker, which are both highly prized falcon species.

The Ab-i Istada National Waterfowl and Flamingo Sanctuary is visited by more than 120 migratory species, including vast flocks of greater flamingos and Siberian cranes.

Bamyan Plateau Protected Area

The government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan created this 4,200-square-kilometer national park in November 2019. Located in the Hindu Kush Mountain Range, the Bamyan Plateau Protected Area represents Afghanistan’s second largest protected area after Wakhan National Park.

Image by Hadi Zaher | Flickr

Bamyan Plateau is geographically diverse and features high-altitude grasslands, jagged rock formations, and deep gorges. Its pristine rangeland and gigantic, deep canyons are home to a plethora of flora and fauna, including the rare Persian leopard, Himalayan ibex, lynx, foxes, pikas, and marmots.

The Bamyan Plateau is the only known area of Afghanistan to be inhabited by boreal owls and Asian badgers.

Nuristan Nature Reserve               

Starting to the west of Kabul and ending at Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan, the Nuristan Forest encompasses multiple communities, including Nilaw, Arandu, Sao, Kunar, Pasenta, Nangalam, Kamdesh, and Naray, as well as the region’s capital city, Parun. Cities, towns, and villages in the Nuristan region are home to approximately 140,000 people, with settlers first populating the area about two centuries ago.

The Nuristan Forest is world famous for its outstanding natural beauty. The region is believed to be Afghanistan’s most biologically diverse due to the regional humidity created by Indian Ocean monsoons.

Recent biological surveys carried out in Nuristan Nature Reserve reveal that several species, including gray wolves, leopards, and Asiatic black bears continue to thrive throughout the region. Species commonly observed in the area include Indian crested porcupines, red foxes, rhesus macaques, yellow-throated martens, and golden jackals.

Band-e Amir National Park

Translating as the “Commander’s Dam,” which is believed to be a reference to the Muslim Caliph Ali, Band-e Amir National Park is home to the Hazaras people, who constitute approximately 10% of the total population of Afghanistan.

Recognized as a World Heritage site in 2004, Band-e Amir became a national park in 2009. By 2013, 6,000 tourists were visiting the region annually. Protected by park rangers, Band-e Amir features six separate lakes, the largest of which is Band-e Haibat, or the “Lake of Grandiose.”

Wildlife spotted in the region include urial sheep, wolves, lynx, red foxes, Pallas’s cats, and ibex wild goats. Visitors are drawn to the region by the purported healing properties of the local lakes. In addition, pilgrims frequent the area to visit Prophet Ali’s holy shrine.

8 of the Most Significant Holidays in Afghanistan

Steeped in culture and tradition, Afghanistan is famous for its celebrations to mark their national holidays, with people throughout the country coming together for the joyous festivities. In this article, we look at a selection of Afghan national holidays and how they are observed across the country.

Ramadan

Ramadan is a holy month in the Islamic culture. During Ramadan, Muslims all over the world fast throughout the daylight hours in order to feel closer to God. During this month of spiritual rejuvenation, Muslims try to avoid personal vices and negative acts and instead concentrate on practicing self-control, showing compassion for individuals who are less fortunate, and undertaking positive acts. Ramadan centers around religious devotion, encouraging Muslims to devote more time to performing special prayers and studying the Qur’an.

Eid al-Fitr

An Islamic festival, Eid al-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan, when Muslims attend communal prayers, listen to sermons, and give charity in the form of food. Eid al-Fitr is a public holiday throughout Afghanistan, when businesses and schools are closed, and the general population takes a day off as part of the celebration.

In 2020, Eid al-Fitr falls on May 24 in Afghanistan. People around the country will celebrate this “Festival of Fast-Breaking,” pledging money to people in need and enjoying feasts with friends and family.

Mawlid al-Nabi

Mawlid al-Nabi celebrates the birth of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Afghans celebrate the festival in the third month of the Islamic calendar.

The history of Mawlid al-Nabi dates back to Islam’s early days, when followers would hold festivals, with large crowds gathering to hear songs and poetry composed in honor of the Prophet Muhammad.

Ashura

Ashura takes place in the first month of the Islamic calendar. It marks the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, who died during the Battle of Karbala.

In Shia Islam, Ashura is celebrated as a major holiday, while in Sunni Islam it is marked as a recommended day of fasting.

Labor Day

Held on May 1 every year in Afghanistan, Labor Day commemorates the achievements of the country’s labor movement.

Also known as May Day or International Worker’s Day, Labor Day is a public holiday across Afghanistan. It is celebrated in numerous other countries worldwide, including the United States. The holiday is also celebrated in the United Kingdom, where it is not fixed and instead falls on the first Monday of May.

Eid al-Qurban or Eid al-Adha

The Islamic festival Eid al-Qurban or Eid al-Adha, which is a public holiday throughout Afghanistan, commemorates the willingness of Ibrahim to follow God’s command to sacrifice his son.

Schools and most businesses close for Eid al-Qurban, which is a day off for most Afghan nationals. Celebrations are traditionally marked by the slaughter of an animal—usually a cow, sheep, or goat—which Afghans cook and share among family members during an evening feast, as well as distributing food among the poor within their local community, earning the festival an international reputation as the “Feast of Sacrifice.”

Religious leaders encourage wealthy Muslims across Afghanistan to sacrifice an animal for the sake of God on this day, feeding people in need in a nationwide celebration of peace and solidarity.

Jeshyn-Afghan Day

Also known as Independence Day, Jeshyn-Afghan Day is a celebration of pride in Afghanistan’s glorious past. A national holiday throughout the country, this day commemorating freedom from colonial powers is celebrated each year on August 19 to commemorate the signing of the Treaty of Rawalpindi by Britain and Afghanistan in 1919, which marked the restoration of complete sovereignty to Afghanistan.

Today, Jeshyn-Afghan Day is celebrated across Afghanistan with displays of traditional costumes, street parties, and military parades.

Nowruz

Nowruz is a traditional Afghan springtime celebration that falls on the vernal equinox. The name “Nowruz” means “new day.” The phrase comes from the ancient Avestan language. The festival of Nowruz symbolizes new life, beginnings, and the rebirth of nature.

The festival of Nowruz dates back more than 3,000 years in Afghanistan, to the country’s Zoroastrian era. Approximately 300 million people celebrate Nowruz worldwide, including most of the population of Afghanistan.

In villages, towns, and cities across Afghanistan, Nowruz is marked by two weeks of celebrations, including displays of livestock and agricultural products, as well as ceremonies and exhibitions throughout the country.

In 2019, the Nawruz festival coincided with the 100-year anniversary of Afghanistan gaining independence from British colonial forces. Huge crowds gathered on the streets across the country for special festivities to celebrate the spring equinox and to commemorate a centenary of Afghan independence.

Women in colorful dresses and carrying plastic trumpets and national flags congregated in Mazar-e-Sharif, gathering outside the city’s famous Blue mosque. People from across Afghanistan and neighboring countries joined together to mark the celebration, with Pashto dancers in traditional dress filling the streets, dancing to flutes and drums in this special celebration of Afghan hope, pride, and independence.

9 Interesting Animals Native to Afghanistan

Afghanistan is home to a myriad of animal species, including more than 100 different types of mammal. From snow leopards to Marco Polo sheep, here are some of Afghanistan’s wildlife and the regions they inhabit.

Lynx

The Eurasian lynx is a medium-sized feline that inhabits temperate forests of Afghanistan, living in altitudes of up to 5,500 meters. The lynx is widely distributed throughout Europe and Asia, with an estimated 10,000 individuals left in the wild.

In Central Asia, lynx are found in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, China, Mongolia, Nepal, India and Pakistan. Lynx fossils also have been excavated in the Japanese archipelago.

Eurasian otter

Eurasian otter

The Eurasian otter is a protected species in Afghanistan. Also known as the Old World otter, common otter, or European otter, this semiaquatic mammal is indigenous to parts of Asia and Europe.

Commonly found in coasts and waterways, the Eurasian otter mainly eats fish. Eurasian otters can be extremely territorial. They are considered endangered in some regions, though in others, numbers appear to be recovering.

In winter months, the otters sometimes turn to other food sources. Eurasian otters have been known to eat crustaceans, amphibians, insects, birds, small mammals, and even juvenile beavers.

Asiatic black bear

This medium-sized bear species is characterized by its white chest. Indigenous to regions of Asia, the species is listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as vulnerable.

Asiatic black bears are excellent climbers, and sometimes nest in trees. Every fall, they prepare a den for hibernation, where they remain until the following spring. These dens may be made in holes in the ground, caves, hollow logs, or trees.

Markhor

The markhor is a goat species with very large, corkscrew-shaped horns.

In Afghanistan, the species is found in the mountainous forests of Nuristan and Laghman. The name markhor comes from the Persian mâr meaning serpent, and khor meaning eater, since in ancient folklore the goat species was reputed to kill and eat snakes.

Markhor measure up to 115 centimeters in height and weigh up to 110 kilograms. They are specially adapted to the mountain terrain, growing a thicker, longer coat to keep them warm in the depths of winter.

Long-tailed marmot                                                   

The long-tailed marmot is indigenous to Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, India, and China. This large, sturdy rodent has a body length of up to 80 centimeters and can weigh up to 9 kilograms.

Long-tailed marmots form monogamous relationships and live in communities with up to seven adults. The marmots live in burrow systems, hibernating in September and emerging in April or May.

Geoffroy’s bat

This medium-sized bat species has long, woolly fur, and feeds primarily on flies and spiders. Geoffroy’s bat typically inhabits Afghanistan’s grassland and scrubland regions, although it is sometimes found in plantations. These bats often roost in manmade buildings or underground.

Marco Polo sheep

Marco Polo sheep
Image by Cloudtail the Snow Leopard | Flickr

Named after the famous Italian explorer, the Marco Polo sheep is a subspecies of the argali breed. They populate mountainous regions throughout Central Asia. Marco Polo sheep are characterized by their impressive, spiral-shaped horns, which can measure up to 140 cm, making them the longest horns of any sheep species.

The majority of Marco Polo sheep live in the Pamir Mountain region, near the borderlands of Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, China, and Pakistan. They survive at elevations of up to 4,800 meters above sea level and generally live in flocks as large as a few dozen.

Snow leopard

Afghanistan’s mountainous regions are estimated to be home to around 200 adult snow leopards today. Despite being notoriously elusive, the snow leopard is listed as vulnerable in the IUCN Red List. Conservationists estimate the global snow leopard population is less than 10,000 today, a figure predicted to decline.

Snow leopards are indigenous to the Badakhshan Province’s Wakhan District, in eastern Afghanistan. Their characteristic thick fur coat protects them from harsh winters at high altitudes. Snow leopards are solitary animals that are most active at dawn and dusk.

Although the leopards are carnivorous and are accomplished hunters, there are only two recorded instances of snow leopard attacks on humans.

Pallas’ cat

This species of wildcat is much smaller than the snow leopard or lynx. It inhabits the grasslands and high-altitude steppes of Afghanistan and is classified on the IUCN Red List as Near Threatened.

With a body length of up to 65 centimeters and weighing up to 4.5 kilograms, the Pallas’ cat is around the same size as a domestic cat. It is a stocky feline, with long, dense fur.

Pallas’ cats are extremely solitary. They feed primarily on small animals like voles, pikas, and gerbils, and sometimes young marmots.

The Pallas’ cat has been legally protected in Afghanistan since 2009, with hunting and trade in the animal illegal throughout the country.