Afghanistan has announced some rare good news: the establishment of its first national park. The park, known as Band-e-Amir, will protect one of the country’s best-known natural areas. It lies near the Bamyan Valley, where the 1,500-year-old giant Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban once stood.

Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) research helped drive the park’s creation. WCS field scientists conducted preliminary wildlife surveys, identified and delineated the park’s boundaries, and worked with local communities and the provincial government. WCS also developed the park’s management plan and helped the Afghan government hire and train local rangers. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) provided key funding for this work.

Band-e-Amir is renowned for its spectacular series of six deep blue lakes separated by natural dams made of travertine, a mineral deposit. Travertine systems are found in only a few places throughout the world. Virtually all are on the UNESCO World Heritage list and serve as major international tourist attractions.

Though Band-e-Amir had been a destination for travelers since the 1950s, tourism slowed to a near halt during the war years of 1979–2001. Today, the region draws thousands of Afghan tourists and religious pilgrims annually, as well as many foreigners currently living and working in the country.

“At its core, Band-e-Amir is an Afghan initiative supported by the international community. It is a park created for Afghans, by Afghans, for the new Afghanistan,” said Dr. Steven E. Sanderson, WCS President and CEO.

Though much of the park’s wildlife has been lost, recent surveys indicate that it still contains ibex (a species of wild goat) and urial (a type of wild sheep), along with wolves, foxes, smaller mammals, and fish. It is also home to various bird species, including the Afghan snow finch, believed to be the only bird found exclusively in Afghanistan. Snow leopards were once found in the area, but vanished due to hunting in the early 1980s.

The lakes’ wildlife faces growing threats from pollution and other human-caused degradation to the fragile travertine dams.

Band-e-Amir’s new status grants recognition essential to helping the park become an international tourist destination and obtain World Heritage Status, which would provide additional protection. It also lays the groundwork for an Afghan Protected Area System that could include the wildlife-rich transboundary area in the Pamirs shared with Pakistan, China, and Tajikistan.

Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Agency, the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock, and the Band-e-Amir Protected Area Committee will collectively manage the new park. WCS helped the 13 villages lying within the park establish the protected area committee, which ensures that local communities play a key role in protecting this world-class landscape.