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.

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.

How Afghanaid Makes Life Better in Afghanistan

Afghanaid

For over 35 years, the British humanitarian and development organization Afghanaid has been working to improve the lives of millions of Afghans who are vulnerable and underserved. The organization it maintains a presence in some of Afghanistan’s poorest and most remote communities.

Afghanaid develops and runs programs across a broad range of focus areas, including basic service delivery, livelihood enhancement, emergency assistance, and disaster risk reduction. Through the organization’s community-led approach, ordinary Afghans play an important role in their own development. They have the opportunity to become active participants in shaping not only their own futures, but the future of their country as well.

Afghanaid’s recent and current projects include:

1. Restoring Mine-Contaminated Land

For the past two years, Afghanaid has worked in partnership with the HALO Trust, a charity focused on land mine clearance and mine risk education. Due to the decades of conflict it has experienced, Afghanistan is one of the world’s most heavily mined countries. Many regions are still littered with unexploded ordnance.

This makes life extremely difficult for the 80 percent of Afghans who rely on agriculture for their livelihoods. When land cannot be used for crops or grazing because of land mine contamination, whole communities are trapped in poverty and lives are put at risk on a daily basis.

Afghanaid is working to address this issue by coming to areas that the HALO Trust has cleared of mines and unexploded ordnance. It then helps local families rebuild their livelihoods by making good use of their cleared land.

In Samagan and Logar provinces, for example, Afghanaid has provided training in improved agricultural techniques, orchard and greenhouse management, and poultry rearing to nearly 3,000 people. The organization has also supplied the technical assistance and tools needed to transform this previously dangerous land into a valuable, productive resource.

landmine

2. Improving Livestock and Animal Welfare

Most families and households in rural Afghanistan rely on animals, whether for food, transportation, or economic livelihood. Despite this dependence, however, few Afghans have the skills, knowledge, or resources to provide proper care for their animals. In addition, access to experienced veterinarians is rare in remote regions.

As a result, the well-being of many animals is seriously compromised. This negatively impacts both the animals themselves and the people who rely on them.

To help improve animal welfare in rural Afghanistan, Afghanaid recently launched a new partnership with the international equine welfare charity Brooke. This collaborative project will see Afghanaid working in Daykundi province to provide mentorship and specialized training to vets as well as education for farmers regarding the benefits of good animal welfare and the importance of veterinary services.

The organization will also teach farmers critical animal husbandry skills, such as appropriate animal handling, proper housing and feeding, and the identification of diseases. The aim of this initiative is to create a “virtuous cycle” in which improvements to animal welfare lead to greater productivity, which in turn leads to greater prosperity.

3. Responding to Severe Drought

Recent years have seen Afghanistan struggling with severe drought. Because of the resulting water shortage, crop yield has been much lower than usual for the past several seasons. As a result, many rural households have insufficient food for either themselves or their livestock. This has led to significant income reduction and has greatly increased vulnerability to environmental and economic crises.

This devastating situation has left thousands of Afghan families in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. In coordination with the World Food Programme and local partners in Afghanistan, Afghanaid has worked to provide essential food and supplies to nearly 11,000 struggling families in Ghor province, which has been one of the regions hit hardest by drought.

With this assistance, these households can stave off hunger and malnutrition. In addition, they can avoid the negative coping strategies (such as selling off livestock at a very low price) that are unfortunately common in these extreme situations.

drought

4. Promoting Sustainable Use of Natural Resources

When Afghan families in rural areas need food, water, fuel, medicine, and construction materials, they often turn to the forests, rangelands, and rivers that surround them. However, over the years, a lack of proper regulation and oversight of these resources has led to severe depletion and deterioration of many of these natural systems.

Today, the strain on Afghanistan’s natural ecosystems is even further exacerbated by increasing pressure from rapid population growth, rising land prices, climate change, and recurring natural disasters. This is not only problematic from an environmental point of view, but a social one as well. Resource scarcity is often a significant factor in ethnic, political, and regional conflicts.

To help transform scarce natural resources into sustainable assets, Afghanaid is embarking on a major four-year project in collaboration with the Liaison Office, an Afghan NGO, with support from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. Taking place in Daykundi province, the project will support 4,500 rural families as they learn to more effectively manage the natural resources they depend on.

A key element of the initiative will be the creation and training of local rangeland management associations. This will help communities work together to manage rangelands in a way that is equitable, inclusive, and sustainable.