Covering approximately 40,000 km2 and spanning several provinces, the Hazarajat Plateau is nestled within the central highlands of Afghanistan, on the western edge of the Hindu Kush range and north of the Koh-e-Baba mountains. Because of the high altitude and continental climate, the Plateau experiences long, cold winters with heavy snowfall, and hot, dry summers. These altitude differences also create a diversity of habitats and wildlife. The major ethnic group is the Hazaras, after which the Plateau is named. The Hazarajat Plateau is one of the poorest areas in the country and suffered significantly during the last three decades of war.
Rural people live closely with the land in the Hazarajat Plateau and depend upon it for critical goods and services such as growing crops, grazing livestock, collecting shrubs and other sources of fuel, and hunting wild animals for food. The current security situation is excellent relative to the rest of the country and its scenic and wildlife resources provide opportunities for economic improvement along with sustainable environmental protection. The Plateau also contains important cultural sites such as the relics of the ancient Buddha statues in Bamyan town, which were brought down by the Taliban regime but have left a striking mark on the landscape.
The Hazarajat Plateau is a focus area for WCS in Afghanistan, with efforts concentrated at two key sites – the recently declared Band-e-Amir National Park and Ajar Valley together with the large inhabited area in between. The overall objective of the Hazarajat Program is to undertake rangeland and biodiversity assessments in these key areas and to assist the Government and local communities in making Band-e-Amir and Ajar Valley legally recognized and fully-functional protected areas.
Band-e-Amir National Park
After a series of moves towards protection status in the early 1970s, Band-e-Amir was finally declared a Provisional National Park by the Government of Afghanistan in April 2009, and is the country’s only official Protected Area. Situated at an elevation of 2900 – 4000 m, it is set around a unique step-like network of six lakes separated by natural white travertine dams and surrounded by striking red cliffs and mountains. The lake water is an extraordinary blue color, due to the extreme clarity of the water. Each of the six lakes differs in their ecology with some surrounded by reed beds (often collected for fodder and animal bedding) or shrubs (collected for fuel), while others form more of a marshland-type habitat. Elsewhere in the National Park, the vegetation consists of thorny-shrub steppe that has been affected over the years by heavy grazing and farming in the area. A species of sucker known locally as milkfish is still abundant in the lakes and many bird species are attracted to Band-e-Amir during their migration. The Afghan snowfinch (Montifringilla theresa), for example, is found only in the mountains of central Afghanistan. Small mammals are also frequently seen around the lakes, such as the Afghan pika (Ochotona rufescens) and the long-tailed marmot (Marmota caudata). High levels of human activity have largely eliminated large mammals from the area, although Afghan urial (Ovis orientalis) still migrate through the Park.
Band-e-Amir is often described, and appropriately so, as one of the great wonders of the world. WCS believes the area deserves particular protection and attention as a major source of future revenue from international and domestic tourism. However as its popularity has grown, considerable development has already occurred around the site.
To ensure Band-e-Amir National Park develops and is managed responsibly in the long term, WCS continues to work closely with local and government stakeholders throughout the process of its official declaration, by facilitating consultations on the comprehensive management plan through the establishment of the Band-e-Amir Protected Area Committee (BAPAC), conducting socio-economic surveys and understanding the communities’ attitudes towards natural resource management, implementing a ranger training program, as well as continuing with surveys of the wildlife and rangelands in the area. Given its tremendous natural beauty, WCS also assisted the Government in Band-e-Amir’s nomination for UNESCO World Heritage status. It is the only natural World Heritage Convention site proposed for Afghanistan and would help to raise awareness of conservation issues in the park, increase its protection, enhance funding opportunities, improve the park’s management, and harness ecotourism.
Approximately 60 km northwest from Bamyan town lies the Ajar Valley. The valley is a spectacular gorge created by the Ajar River and the sheer-sided Jawzari Canyon, with peaks from the surrounding Hindu Kush range rising to a height of over 4,000 m. Before hostilities began in the late 1970s, the whole area was relatively undisturbed with extensive rangelands supporting large populations of ibex (Capra ibex) and urial (Ovis orientalis), feral yaks (Bos grunniens) and introduced Bactrian deer (Cervus elaphus bactrianus). Other wildlife typical of the Hindu Kush were also seen here including common leopards (Panthera pardus), lynx (Lynx lynx), wolf (Canis lupus), and foxes (Vulpus vulpes). Ajar Valley was a royal hunting reserve for many years and was gazetted as a Wildlife Sanctuary in 1977 with an area of between 40,000–50,000 hectares. However, no management plan was ever put in place and there appears to be no official record documenting its boundaries as a reserve. Recent conflict-related events have resulted in a total lack of protection for the area. Wildlife populations have suffered dramatically – Bactrian deer are now gone while ibex and urial numbers have been reduced to low numbers.
After WCS began ground-truthing potential sites in 2006, it became clear that almost nothing was known about the current status of wildlife or local attitudes to conservation. Baseline wildlife and habitat-related data were necessary to first support a protected area proposal, and public outreach programs were essential to encourage communities and local government towards a more conservation-orientated mindset.
The WCS Hazarajat Program began its work in both sites by holding multiple meetings with government officials at the national, provincial, and district levels. From the outset, WCS worked closely with Ministry of Agriculture counterparts, the Governor of Bamyan Province, the Deputy Governor, and the Provincial Head for the Ministry of Agriculture. The team also keeps up constant communication to ensure that local communities are aware of WCS initiatives at Ajar and Band-e-Amir. Through these interactions, WCS has gained a detailed understanding of the community structure at the two sites, and the issues that may confront the development of future protected areas.
The challenges facing the team in Hazarajat arise from both the degradation of the environment surrounding both Band-e-Amir and Ajar Valley, and several governance issues.
Band-e-Amir is facing a number of threats, particularly as the area becomes an increasingly popular destination for recreation and tourism. Erosion is caused by vehicles driving off the marked roads, and pollution levels are heavy in parts from garbage being left in and around the lakes. Harvesting of shrubs for fuel, dryland farming, and heavy livestock grazing have also degraded the environment. Rangeland in Ajar appears to be in better condition than at Band-e-Amir although juniper trees and willows are still being harvested. Hunting also continues despite two Presidential Decrees issued in 2005 and 2010 (prohibiting hunting of wildlife in all parts of the country). From a population of approximately 2,350 – 5,000 in the mid-1970s, ibex numbers are estimated now at between 100 - 200. All Bactrian deer and feral yak were killed early in the conflict of the 1970s and 80s. Hunting of ibex continues, despite recent wildlife protection legislation in place aimed at banning all hunting and trade in its parts. Common leopards also appear to be absent now, and fishing pressure in Lake Chiltan and the Ajar River is taking its toll on fish populations and the surrounding ecosystem.
WCS began work to develop Band-e-Amir as a national park in 2006. Our activities began with meeting local communities to better understand their position on protected areas, and building consensus among the Afghan government and local communities. To help spur on accomplishment in the right direction, WCS facilitated the creation of a Band-e-Amir Coordination Committee in 2006 which, in 2009, expanded its mandate to all Afghanistan’s protected areas and became known as the Protected Area Working Group. This group aids information-sharing, policy coordination, planning and development activities and ensures that existing laws are upheld in the creation of new protected areas. The Committee was successful in setting a common direction and coordinating actions so that the process of establishing Band-e-Amir National Park could move forward.
The most significant achievement towards successful governance of Band-e-Amir was the formation of the Band-e-Amir Protected Area Committee (BAPAC) which now includes representatives of 14 local communities, the Provincial Council, the District Governor's Office, NEPA and the Park’s Warden (representative of MAIL). BAPAC became the first community-government institutional structure for providing direction and policy on protected areas. The Band-e-Amir Community Association has also been set up by local communities as a Social Organization to help pilot benefit-sharing arrangements between the Government and community groups at Band-e-Amir. These arrangements allow the communities to benefit economically from tourism at Band-e-Amir National Park and are currently taking the form of lease concession contracts. Coordination between municipal, provincial and national bodies will be essential to the success of this benefit-sharing approach in Band-e-Amir. The national level Benefit Sharing Working Group includes representatives from all levels with WCS as technical advisors, and ensures that this coordination happens.
Without the direct collaboration and support between rural and central governance structures that Band-e-Amir communities have through BAPAC, communities surrounding Ajar Valley are not as advanced in their planning for a potential wildlife reserve in the area. Nonetheless, WCS community surveys and public consultations in the Hazarajat Plateau have highlighted a strong interest from surrounding communities for developing a conservation program in the Ajar Valley and for forming a similar Protected Area Committee to BAPAC.
WCS activities in both Band-e-Amir and Ajar Valley have focused on conducting baseline scientific studies, meeting with local communities to better understand their position on the development of protected areas, building consensus among all stakeholders involved in the development of Band-e-Amir National Park and a potential Wildlife Reserve at Ajar, and strengthening rural and central governance and management capacity at both sites. In terms of scientific surveys, WCS is undertaking studies of rangelands, mammals and birds to assess their status and begin to develop sensible recommendations for their conservation and management. This includes the collection of historical baseline data to allow detection of changes in flora and fauna populations. WCS has also begun surveys to ground-truth the “corridor” that exists between Band-e-Amir and Ajar Valley. From initial results, the corridor appears to have critical potential for wildlife protection. There are no permanent settlements in an area of roughly 1,000 km², and range conditions in the western part of the corridor are good (although the entire eastern area is heavily grazed). Substantial and unexpectedly large numbers of urial have also been seen in the western corridor.
Alongside these surveys, WCS has been working closely with communities in the region. Teams have held frequent village meetings, facilitated larger consultations between local representatives and government officials in Kabul, and have talked with decision-makers throughout the process to ensure protected area development brings about benefits and creates opportunities for the community as well as the local biodiversity. Community based natural resource management forms the focus of WCS work across the Hazarajat Plateau, and we work closely with communities and Protected Area Committees, promoting sustainable ways of living off the land such as different methods of fuel collection and usage. WCS has also facilitated the process of recruiting government rangers to help protect Band-e-Amir National Park and the northern part of the plateau, and continues to train rangers and wardens in monitoring wildlife populations. To further strengthen the reach of central government in these areas, WCS builds capacity of its government counterparts in every stage of the work in Hazarajat, training staff in survey techniques and involving them in socio-economic studies of the communities.