Canadian helps found first wildlife preserve
Montreal, August 21, 2009 (The Canadian Press): Many large animals and fish in Afghanistan have become endagered. Canadian wildlife biologist Chris Shank has helped found the country's first national park, Band-e-Amir, providing safe haven to those creatures left.
In the midst sits a jewel of a region with rugged peaks and clear blue lakes in the Hindu Kush mountains of the central Bamiyan province.
It was inaugurated last April near the site where 1,500-year-old Buddha statues were reduced to rubble by the Taliban in 2001.
Its creation is a small victory, 30 years in the making, for the Alberta-based researcher who first saw its potential in the mid 1970s while working with a team of researchers from the United Nations.
Since 2006, after signing with the U.S. Wildlife Conservation Society to oversee environmental projects, he's been spending at least four months a year there championing ventures like Band-e-Amir.
"It's a symbolic hurdle," Shank admits.
Some 5,000 people live on the preserve - grazing, fishing and farming.
Soil degradation, overgrazing, and deforestation are common.
It poses a unique set of challenges for conservationists, but they hope Band-e-Amir will buffer the effects of habitat destruction on the wild goats, sheep, wolves, foxes, fish, and birds.
"Doing environmental work in Afghanistan is extremely difficult," said Shank.
Shank focuses to what he calls 'sustainable conservation' over preservation.
"One of the major things that could benefit the environment would be to assist local people in establishing land rights," he said.
He's heartened by the introduction of the local governance.
"It's given the people a sense of identity, enfranchisement in the management of their lands," he said.
There's a budding eco-tourism industry, with thousands of visitors flocking to the park on the one narrow track that has been cleared of land mines.
Band-e-Amir also provides jobs to park rangers by the government and the conservation organization and Shank says hunting has stopped due to education and enforcement.
In June, The National Environmental Protection Agency released its first-ever list of protected species, which includes snow leopards, the Asiatic black bear, and the wild Marco Polo sheep whose curving horns can span up to six feet from root to tip. The list is expected to be expanded to some 70 species of plants and animals by the end of the year.
The government is also pushing for the region to be granted status as a World Heritage Site, which would offer additional protection to its natural wealth.
The Wildlife Conservation Society has plans to help develop a network of parks and protected areas, including bio-diversity hotspots, near Pakistan, China, and Tajikistan.
Shank's also working on establishing a second park in the Ajar Valley.