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.

10 Things You Might Not Know about Afghanistan

In this article, we look at 10 interesting facts about Afghanistan, its culture, and its people—from the country’s love of poetry to the national sport of buzkashi.

1. Afghanistan’s capital city is Kabul.

Kabul, Afghanistan’s largest city, is located in the country’s eastern section. The only city in Afghanistan with a population of more than 1 million, Kabul is home to around 4.114 million people.

Nestled in a valley of the expansive Hindu Kush mountains, Kabul’s elevation of approximately 1,790 meters makes the city one of the world’s highest capitals. First mentioned around the era of the Achaemenid Empire, the city of Kabul is said to date back more than 3,500 years.

2. The national sport of Afghanistan is buzkashi.

Afghans have petitioned for buzkashi, known as the world’s wildest sport, to be recognized as an Olympic sport.

buzkashi

Buzkashi, or goat-grabbing, involves horseback riders grabbing at a goat carcass, galloping clear of their rivals, and dropping it within a chalked circle. The game has been played on the northern steppe for centuries, and was once the sport of rich rival warlords. Today, it is largely funded by mobile telecoms companies and private airlines.

3. Alexander the Great’s wife, Roxana, was born in Afghanistan.

She was described as one of the most beautiful women in the whole of Asia. Roxana’s Afghan name, Roshanak, means “little star” in Persian.

Although Alexander the Great’s marriage to Roxana was politically motivated, it is widely noted that she was his greatest weakness. Married in 327 BC, Alexander was so charmed by Roxana’s beauty and wisdom that the couple were inseparable, much to the annoyance of some of his soldiers.

Following Alexander the Great’s death in 323 BC, Roxana gave birth to Alexander IV. She was murdered in Macedonia in 320 BC by Alexander’s former ally.

4. Approximately 90 percent of the Afghan population has mobile coverage.

After the Karzai administration gained office in 2001, Afghanistan’s Ministry of Communications and Information Technology rapidly expanded the country’s wireless, internet, radio, and television industries.

tower

In 2006, the Afghan government signed an agreement with ZTE of China, striking a deal worth a reported $64.5 million. Under the agreement, ZTE would lay the country’s optical fiber cable, improving telephone, internet, radio, and television services throughout Afghanistan.

By 2014, approximately 90 percent of Afghans had access to communication services.  Today, Afghan Wireless keeps Afghanistan connected, providing unparalleled speed, freedom, and reliability.

5. Poetry is an integral part of Afghan culture.

Afghans have been telling tales in verse for more than a millennium. In the western city of Herat, locals celebrate “poetry night” every Thursday, with men, women, and children gathering together to share both modern and ancient verse, enjoying traditional Herati music, and indulging in pastries and sweet tea well into the evening.

6. Afghanistan is a landlocked South Asian nation.

The country is bordered by Iran to the west; India and China to the east; Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan to the north; and Pakistan to the south. The terrain is dominated by rugged mountains, with flat plains in the north and southwest.

7. The country is twice the size of the UK, but has half its population.

Afghanistan’s current population is estimated at almost 39 million. The majority of Afghans live in rural locations within tribal and kinship groups. Approximately 10 percent of Afghans live in Kabul. The nation’s second largest city is Kandahar, with just under 400,000 residents.

8. Afghanistan is semi-arid, with hot summers and cold winters.

shepherd

Afghanistan has a dry continental climate, comprising all four seasons. In Afghanistan’s lowlands, temperatures can peak at 50⁰C in the height of summer, dropping to around 20⁰C in the wintertime. In mountain regions, winter temperatures often fall as low as -25⁰C, with some isolated areas dropping considerably lower than this.

9. Afghans celebrate the new year on March 21.

The Afghan new year is marked by celebrations lasting around 2 weeks, culminating in Nauruz, or Farmer’s Day, which is celebrated on March 21.

In the city of Mazar-i-Shar, the Red Flower Festival forms an integral part of the new year festivities, celebrating the blaze of red tulips growing on plains surrounding the city.

In Mazar, up to 200,000 Afghans gather for Jahenda Bala on the first day of the new year. High ranking officials gather for a religious ceremony at the Blue Mosque, the site of the tomb of the 4th Calif of Islam, Ali ibn Abi Talib.

10. Agriculture is big business in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is self-sufficient in terms of around 95 percent of its rye and wheat supply. The country’s agricultural sector more than meets the country’s needs for potatoes and rice. Agriculture accounts for around 23 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP and 44 percent of the country’s labor force.

Afghanistan produces around 1.5 million tons of fresh fruit every year, and experts predict this sector could expand significantly in years to come. The country is gaining a reputation for producing some of the world’s finest grapes, cherries, apricots, melons, peaches, and figs.