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."
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.
"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]."
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.
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."