Protecting a Hidden Treasure of Central Asia

If one thinks of Afghanistan’s landscape, it is probably of the arid and flat lowlands of the southwest, known almost exclusively for the past 15 years for violent conflict. Yet to the northeast stretches an altogether different terrain that reaches into central Afghanistan, with high mountains and alpine pastures at elevations above 10,000 feet (3,000 meters).

Here, crimped in a hollow of the Hindu Kush range—an extension of the Himalayas—is a place of mysterious majesty made of green rolling hills in spring, remote valleys and breathtakingly steep canyons that comprise the magnificent and peaceful Bamyan Plateau.

WCS recently joined officials from the Afghanistan National Environmental Protection Agency, the Afghanistan Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock​; provincial and district authorities of Bamyan province; academics, civil society/environmental activists; and local communities​ to celebrate the establishment of the Bamyan Plateau Protected Area, the fifth such park in Afghanistan.

The 12th largest natural arch in the world. Credit: WCS

The plateau’s remoteness and of water sources adequate for livestock mean that most of its 1,600 square miles (4,200 square kilometers) see human activity on a seasonal basis only. And some areas, amazingly, remain almost untouched by human beings. Such a large expanse of land with so few permanent settlements is extremely rare in mountains of Central and South Asia and presents a unique conservation opportunity.

That Bamyan Plateau has significant biological wealth became apparent to zoologists and botanists exploring the Ajar Valley, in the province’s northeast, in the mid 1970s, shortly before the Soviet invasion. For the following three decades, reports from those preliminary expeditions remained largely ignored as the country struggled through a near-continuous period of havoc characterized by international conflicts, civil wars and insurgencies.

In 2006, these reports emerged from collective oblivion and attracted the attention of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) country program—then recently established in Afghanistan in full partnership with the national government. Because of the remoteness of the area and logistical hurdles, exploring this landscape proved an intermittent and extraordinarily challenging endeavor.

During the last decade, however, these longstanding efforts were rewarded by a succession of exciting discoveries confirming the outstanding biological value of Bamyan Plateau at both national and regional levels.

Pristine landscape dominated by Artemesia. Credit: WCS

The plateau hosts unique ecosystems, including some of the most pristine landscapes in Afghanistan and Central and South Asia. Many areas are characterized by rare and regionally vanishing plant species such as multicentury-old stands of juniper trees that can be considered unique on the continent.

The ecological conditions of rangeland habitats are another feature that render the area exceptional. The plateau boasts well-developed communities of vegetation and numerous areas with extraordinarily high green plant coverage in spring—very rare in Central Asia and the vicinity. Many species are found nowhere else on Earth.

Boreal owl. Credit: WCS

The area is also home to animal species almost never seen elsewhere in Afghanistan, including a healthy breeding population of the endemic Afghan snowfinch (Pyrgilauda theresae) and the breeding boreal owl (Aegolius funereus)—with the nearest known record of the latter outside of the Bamyan Plateau located about 400 mi (700 km) to the east, in northern Pakistan.

You will also find a diversity of mammal species, including the Persian leopard (Panthera pardus tuliana), the southwest Asian badger (Meles canescens) and the marbled polecat (Vormela peregusna)—each identified in recent years in only a handful of other localities in Afghanistan.

Persion leopard. Credit: WCS

Because of its remoteness, the Bamyan Plateau undoubtedly will reveal many other surprises in various branches of the vertebrate and invertebrate fauna. In particular, its deep canyons and associated subterranean caves, which may have retained relict life from the last glacial era, might host unique and very precious ecosystems.

Unfortunately, the plateau’s unique ecosystems have been subject to increased pressure from ever-expanding livestock grazing and overhunting, which have significantly reduced the population of large mammals in many locations.

Siberian ibex. Credit: WCS

Of even greater concern are planned infrastructure developments such as a new road from Dar-i-Suf to Yakawlang, which will increase accessibility—and, as a result, the probability of increased shrub or tree harvesting, and (to a lesser extent) amplified livestock grazing and hunting.

Bamyan Plateau is the legacy of a unique evolutionary history. Its ecosystems are irreplaceable biological treasures that are also key to the livelihood, economy, well-being and cultural identity of local communities. Protecting the plateau will likewise protect such communities, which benefit from a resilient landscape and the services it has been providing for millennia.

Credit: WCS

The creation of the Bamyan Plateau Protected Area is a remarkable and courageous action by the government of Afghanistan. It represents a first step towards conserving one of the most pristine mountain habitats remaining in Afghanistan while highlighting a positive accomplishment that serves as an important source of national pride in a time of great adversity for Afghanistan.

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