Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Canadians Help Build First Afghani National Park

Canadians helped build an Afghani National Park.

Despite the dangers of travelling to a war-torn country, for the past several years Canadian Chris Shank has been spending a third of his time in Afghanistan.

Chris Shank is a wildlife biologist based in scenic Cochrane, AB. Cochrane is far removed from Afghanistan in distance, climate and living conditions. Cochrane is a small town nestled in the foothills of the Rocky Mountain range with plenty of plant and animal life year round. It also has the distinction of being one of the few Canadian communities that has no business tax.

Afghanistan is on the other side of the world to Cochrane; has a hot, dry climate; and, is suffering a loss of plant and animal life due to the ramifications of years at war.

However, Shank's efforts are not connected with NATO's mission in the mountainous Central-Asian state. He took a post with the non-profit group the Wildlife Conservation Society in 2006 in order to help establish these protected areas in Afghanistan.

Earlier this year his efforts paid off, when the Afghan government created the country's first national park, called Band-e-Amir, which lies 240 kilometres west of Kabul. Band-e-Amir means "Dam of the Amir". They were created by the carbon dioxide rich water oozing out of the faults and fractures to deposit calcium carbonate precipitate in the form of travertine walls that today store the water of these lakes.

Photo courtesy Wikipedia.
Band e Panir
Band e Ameer Bamyan, Hazarajat Afghanistan is the most visited place in Afghanistan, after the Buddhas of Bamyan

"The landscape is incredibly beautiful," Shank told Canada AM on Friday. As you can see from the above three photos, the scenery while quite stark is eerily beautiful and quite other worldly.

This video shows more of the incredible scenery that makes this part of Afghanistan such a tourist attraction:

Shank first got the idea to create a conservation area there in the 1970s, while he was working for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. He created a management plan at the time and it became the basis on which the park was created...only three decades later!

While the area was in relatively environmentally good shape when Shank first began his assignments in Afghanistan, the Russian invasion in 1979 and the varying states of war since have taken their toll on the region's wildlife.

"Prior to the war, people didn't have much in the way of modern firearms," Shank said. "But now, firearms are very prevalent and just opportunistic hunting has really decimated some of the large animals in the area."

"The habitat is very heavily affected."

A stone sign stands outside Band-e-Amir National Park in the Afghan province of Bamiyan.

According to the conservation society, snow leopards have already disappeared from the area; but, wild goats (ibexes), wild sheep (urials), foxes, fish and birds.

"If we do protect the habitat, we expect that some of these species will come back in larger numbers," Shank said. "The bird populations are doing fairly well. Hunting has basically stopped for water fowl."

The park covers about 575 sq km (357 sq mi) and houses 13 villages comprised of approximately 5,000 people. A committee made up of local residents provide input into park management.

Shank's organization conducted wildlife surveys, outlined the park's boundaries and helped the local government develop a management plan, including creating new laws.

Chris Shank, a wildlife biologist who drew out management plans for the park in the 1970s, speaks with Canada AM on Friday, Sept. 11, 2009.

The US government made the project possible with the donation of a $1 million grant. They were supported by the province's female governor who lobbied valiantly to set up the park seeing it as a way to create local jobs and help the economy

More than 80% of Afghans depend on the country's natural resources to get by. That makes efforts to preserve wildlife crucial to the country's economic and political stability.

The province's female governor also lobbied hard to set up the park, seeing it as a way to create local jobs and help the economy.

Afghan authorities applied to have Band-e-Amir recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2004, which would provide the area with more resources to protect its habitat and wildlife. The UNESCO World Heritage site lists the heritage sites of the world with the Bamiyan Valley being recognized as a heritage site.

A list of protected species released by Afghan's environmental protection agency in June lists 33 animals such as the snow leopard, the Asiatic black bear and the Marco Polo sheep.

The Wildlife Conservation Society is hoping Band-e-Amir will become one among a number of parks and protected areas it plans to help establish throughout Central Asia, in areas near Pakistan, China and Tajikistan.


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