When one thinks or hears about Afghanistan, visions of war and terrorism come to the fore. But what doesn’t immediately spring to mind is nature.
Women rangers now roam Afghanistan’s first national park
It took 62 years for women rangers to achieve equal status with their male peers in the US National Park Service: in Afghanistan, it has taken just three. In a landmark event for Afghanistan, four women were recently hired as park rangers in the country’s Band-e-Amir National Park – the first female park rangers ever employed in the nation.
Band-e-Amir is Afghanistan’s only national park. Established in 2009 with the help of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), it is one of the world’s most beautiful landscapes and has been nominated as a World Heritage site. The park’s six deep-blue crystal clear lakes are a surprising tourist draw in the country. Over 4,000 visitors a month come to the park in the summer, with the same number in just one weekend in some holiday periods.
The park is particularly popular among women from all over Afghanistan as a recreational area and for the reputed therapeutic properties of the water. It is also home to a number of rare and endangered species, including the recently re-discovered Persian leopard.
In 2012, the park’s Protected Area Committee made the groundbreaking decision to hire women rangers. Park managers, representatives from the 14 villages in the park, as well as provincial and district governments unanimously endorsed the concept. The Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock (Mail) took action to recruit and hire the women rangers in July 2013.
The hiring of Sediqa, Nikbakht, Fatima, and Kubra represents a significant milestone both for the employment of women in Afghanistan and for their involvement in the nation’s law enforcement field. According to Nato, less than 1% of Afghanistan National Police are female, while the World Bank estimates that only 16% of Afghan women are employed in the formal economy.
These new women rangers will make a great contribution to the effective management of Band-e-Amir. In helping to safeguard Afghanistan’s wildlife and natural wonders, they, along with their male colleagues, will also serve as role models for other like-minded men and women considering a career in wildlife conservation.
In our work to assist the management of Band-e-Amir, WCS works regularly with Haji Akhlaqi, a village elder and head of the council that represents the 14 villages in the park. Akhlaqi and his neighbours appreciate the woman rangers, who assist many woman tourists who visit the park and participate in certain “sensitive” activities such as bathing in the spiritual waters.
Habiba Sarabi, governor of Bamyan Province and Afghanistan’s first woman governor, recently told us the new park rangers “represent the growing employment opportunities for all Afghanistan’s citizens as well as the preservation of the country’s natural heritage”.
Equipment and training for the new women rangers, including in the use of GPS, was funded by the US Agency for International Development (Usaid) and implemented by WCS. With support from USAID since 2006, we have been working with community and government partners to promote the sustainable use of natural resources.
In the US’s own national parks, a “woman rangerette” named Claire Marie Hodges worked temporarily in Yosemite during the summer of 1918, filling a gap left by men who were serving in World War I. For the next 46 years, women served as National Park naturalists, interpreters, and “visitor assistants” but were prohibited from becoming full-fledged rangers.
It was not until 1964 that two women were admitted into ranger training school, with support from the Justice department under Robert Kennedy. Finally, in 1978, 60 years after Hodge’s summer job, women rangers achieved the right to receive the same training, hold the same jobs, and wear the same uniform as their male counterparts. Today, almost one-third of National Park Service rangers are women.
In Band-e Amir National Park, Sediqa, Nikbakht, Fatima and Kubra are demonstrating every day what Kennedy believed – that professional preparedness, discipline, and success are traits in no way limited by one’s gender.
“Many of the larger mammals in the country are categorized by IUCN as globally threatened. These include the Snow Leopard, the Markhor, the Marco Polo Sheep, the Urial, and the Asiatic Black Bear. Other species of interest are the Ibex, the Gray Wolf, and the Brown Bear. Most of the Marco Polo sheep and Ibex are being poached for food, whereas wolves, Snow leopards and bears are being killed for damage prevention.” – Wikipedia