National Geographic News
Photo of a yak caravan trekking down from the Little Pamir.

A caravan of traders pick through high mountains of the Wakhan District in winter 2011. The region has just been named Afghanistan's second national park.


Brian Clark Howard

National Geographic

Published April 4, 2014

Afghanistan announced the creation of its second national park this week, a new protected area that is 25 percent larger than Yellowstone National Park in the U.S.

Wakhan National Park encompasses soaring mountains, alpine grasslands, and unique wildlife in the northeastern part of Afghanistan, where it will preserve the traditional ways of life practiced by communities inside its borders.

Prince Mostapha Zaher, the director-general of Afghanistan's National Environmental Protection Agency, called it "one of the last truly wild places on the planet." Zaher said his grandfather, King Zaher Shah, had first dreamed of creating a national park in the area in the 1950s.

"We can prove that the cause of protecting the environment and wildlife can also be utilized as an instrument of peace and tolerance," said Zaher.

"The government of Afghanistan understands that it is absolutely essential for reconstruction to protect its natural resources," adds Peter Zahler, the deputy director of the Asia program for the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, which worked with the Afghan government to establish the park.

The founding of the vast new park—which is 4,200 square miles (about a million hectares)—builds on the success Afghanistan has had with its first national park, Band-e Amir, which was designated in 2009.

"The communities in Band-e Amir love it," says Zahler. "[The park] has brought attention, tourists, and jobs. [So] the communities in Wakhan are really enthusiastic."

Map of Wakhan National Park

The Wakhan District—profiled in a February 2013 National Geographic magazine feature—is a narrow corridor of land jutting off the northeastern tip of Afghanistan. It is bordered by Pakistan to the south, China to the east, and Tajikistan to the north. The region contains the headwaters of the Amu Darya River and is the place where the Hindu Kush and Pamir Mountains meet.

Map of Wakhan National Park

"It is a very isolated, cold, high mountain valley with peaks on both sides," says Zahler, who has been working on conservation in Afghanistan since 2006.

The wildlife of Wakhan, he adds, is "astonishingly diverse." It is a place where wolves, lynx, and brown bears from the north mix with snow leopards, stone martens, and the elusive Pallas's cat. It is also home to ibex, red foxes, and Marco Polo sheep—the world's largest wild sheep, with horns that stretch nearly six feet (two meters) from tip to tip. (See "Pictures: 'Lost' Leopard and Poachers Seen in Afghanistan.")

"The image of Afghanistan is of a dry, empty country," says Zahler, "but it has nine species of wild cats-as many as all of sub-Saharan Africa [which had 11 species before cheetahs and tigers were pushed out by hunters]."

Photo of a herd of sheep heading out in the morning.
The encampment of Kyzyl Qorum in Wakhan is a community of Kyrgyz herders who live in one of the world's most remote regions, near the Afghan borders with China, Tajikistan, and Pakistan.
Photograph by Matthieu Paley, National Geographic

A Park That Protects People

Wakhan National Park includes the entire Wakhan District, home to about 15,000 people, most of them ethnic Wakhi or Krygyz.

Thanks to an agreement with the Afghan government, the locals will be allowed to stay in the park. They will co-manage it with the federal government, and many will get jobs as rangers, managers, and other park personnel.

Local people will also be able to keep making a living off the land. The landscape is too high in altitude for much farming, Zahler says, so most people in Wakhan survive by herding livestock—largely sheep and goats, along with some cattle, horses, and domesticated yaks.

A precise management plan for the park still has to be worked out, but Zahler says the idea is to have different zones. Some zones will be wildlife reserves. Others will be set aside for multiple uses, including grazing.

The region has not faced many threats from logging because it is primarily above the treeline, or from mining because it is so remote, says Zahler. But it has suffered from poaching and overgrazing.

Zahler says enforcement at the new park should help, as should ongoing collaborative efforts with the local communities.

Photo of a field of Colza in the village of Sarhad.
This field is near Sarhad village, which is inhabited by Wakhi people. Locals will continue to live and raise animals in the park. They'll also help manage and defend it.
Photograph by Matthieu Paley, Naitonal Geographic

The Benefits of Tourism?

Each year about 100 to 300 international tourists visit the Wakhan corridor, Zahler says. "It's not a lot, but this is one of the most impoverished regions in Afghanistan, which is one of the more impoverished countries on the planet. It is an area that is desperate for help, and even a few tourists make a big difference." (See "Afghan Ski Challenge Promotes Tourism to War-Weary Hindu Kush.")

Accessibility is part of the problem. Getting to Wakhan takes some effort: An overland trip from Kabul takes a week. Though a new airstrip was recently added, many tourists still enter the area through Tajikistan, which has fewer security concerns.

In 2008, National Geographic Adventure magazine named Wakhan one of its "25 Best New Trips in the World." Zahler says he hopes the new national park will spark more visits as roads and trails are added and word gets out.

The Wakhan corridor, he adds, is "extremely safe—as safe as any high-mountain area can be." The region has not seen recent violence, the Taliban "have no interest in it," and the people "are very welcoming."

Still, he says, that success may hinge on the country's overall stability and security.

In the meantime, Zahler says his organization has proposed a comprehensive list of new parks for Afghanistan. The government is receptive to the idea, he says, and hopes to designate more over time.

When it comes to understanding the value of parks, says Zahler, "Afghanistan really gets it."

Follow Brian Clark Howard on Twitter and Google+.

Jeff Waalkes
Jeff Waalkes

Having worked in the Wakhan for 8 years, I am glad by this move but also find it pretty funny to call this area as national park.  It's primarily a political move, but I hope it will actually prove beneficial to the wonderful Wakhi & Kyrgyz people living in this region. 

Susan C.
Susan C.

This makes me very happy .  would love to go , but could never afford it.  But happy to know it exist.  

Baig Ali
Baig Ali

Good news and that; ud help the Wakhic and Kerghez nighbours to keep pace with the world. AS; that is the the actual SILK ROUTE in between  CHINA and Central Asia and South Asia. The range of this area could be extend to Pakistan & China and mostly the inhabited people are Wakhic or Kerghez very loyal to their respective Countries and do accept it obligations to loyal to the country where they live.

Centuries relationship are- across boarder in social, cultural and other aspects of life. There are kith and kin and very close genealogical relationships as well. The International Communities to put their efforts to persuade the local governments to all the communities to visit across the pomir from one country to another.

Centuries cultural, social and ethnic relation ud pave a better relation and learning from each other the modern and old norms & rituals for a better human being and society. Ac cross the Boarder the elites are suggested to work with the boarder peri-dium of Humanity and Pluralism accepting the diversity strength.

Farid Noori
Farid Noori

Amazing to see Afghanistan take steps towards environmental sustainability as means to promote peace! Proud of my father who works at the Afghanistan National Environmental Protection Agency! 

Stephanie Owen-Williams
Stephanie Owen-Williams

I absolutely LOVE this!!! Would love to see this happen in parks all over the world!

Noor Muhammad
Noor Muhammad

This is a good step and hopefully it will help the inhabitants of the valley overcome the many issues they are faced with.

In the future, there are also opportunities for linking the conservation efforts with the Wakhi speaking and other societies living across the border (Pakistan) in the Gojal Valley (Upper Hunza), where the Khunzhrav National Park is located. 

Ian Jackson
Ian Jackson

Despite the constant warfare, Afghanistan is still a peaceful & beautiful country. 

Ahmed Mehdi Naqvi
Ahmed Mehdi Naqvi

Amazing, power of Nature, Beauty of Nature. All praise & Glory to creator of all what is on earth & under the skies. SubhanAllah!

Michael Bowles
Michael Bowles

The Park helps convert remoteness and isolation into a regional comparative advantage. Tourism growth that preserves resources and benefits the local population in the Wakhan has a long way to go. This is a positive step.

Susan Fox
Susan Fox

I'll go there if I can. Sounds great!

Faisal Soofi
Faisal Soofi

A strong followup and Education in order to help develop a better understanding of modern concepts of how to aid biodiversity of the planet we live on, and improvement in living standards of the people living around these pristine landscapes may go a long way in protecting the above mentioned species and much more. 

Major Threats that need to be seriously checked in and around the 'snow leopard terrain'  are'  

1. illegal over grazing by unvaccinated livestock.

2. indiscriminate hunting .


Hatsoff,  all concerned....

Faisal Soofi
Faisal Soofi

Education in order to develop an understanding of how to aid biodiversity of the planet we live on, and improvement in living standards of the people living around these pristine landscapes may go a long way in protecting the above mentioned species and much more.   

Mohd Nasir
Mohd Nasir

The very great place of Afghanistan to be visited, Wakhan - Badakhshan.

Sibylle Noras
Sibylle Noras

Congratulations to the government of Afghanistan and WCS. This intitiative will help the people of Wakhan district and precious wildlife like the endangered snow leopard.
Publisher "Saving Snow Leopards"

David Seabaugh
David Seabaugh

@Ian Jackson. Sorry to be the lone negative voice here, but as a logic teacher, I simply cannot let this stand. "Despite constant warfare, it's a peaceful country". Here is the equivalent: Despite being a murderer, he is a peaceful person. Absurd.


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